Bang it, Bite it, Bruise It: Quarantine albums from Fiona Apple, Laura Marling, Sam Hunt

fiona apple fetch the bolt cutters

It’s time for a change.

At least for a season, I’m suspending weekly, in-depth album reviews in favor of what I’m calling a monthly digest. Basically, these longer but less frequent posts will list and loosely rank some of the records I’ve been enjoying lately, and provide a dash of commentary for each.

I’ll be upfront in saying that this change is partially a response to how the pandemic has disrupted my daily schedule and compromised some of my mental bandwidth, but I also think this new format offers some benefits to my readers. I’ll ultimately be covering more albums. I’ll be writing about albums I probably would have avoided in the past, including older albums, re-issues, albums I’m not as keen on, and albums I like but simply don’t warrant longer reviews. Additionally, by ranking and categorizing these albums, I hope to add some more analytical/quantitative thinking to this blog (though I still won’t be offering scores or ratings).

Here’s how it will work. Each digest will highlight my pick for Album of the Month, followed by commentary on some albums deemed Must Hears and/or Worth Listening. I’ll also feature some rotating categories like Re-Issue of the Month, as appropriate, and end each post with some curated, seasonal selections.

One more note is that these posts won’t be too rigid in covering the contents of the previous month; for instance, some albums released in the final week of April won’t get covered until May, allowing me some time to really listen carefully.

I hope you’ll find these posts useful resources, and that they’ll inspire you in guided listening. Now: Let’s dive in.

Album of the Month

Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple

In the movie Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez repeats a familiar aphorism about the cyclical nature of abuse: “Hurt people hurt people.” Maybe Fiona Apple is getting at something similar on her fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, when she sings: “Evil is a relay sport/ where the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” The difference, of course, is that Hustlers is content sticking to the language of therapy, while Apple cuts to the cosmological quick, rooting whatever fracture or trauma or sickness people deal with in the soil of human depravity, the dark domain of sin and death. It’s one of countless quotable and complacency-shattering lines on an unerringly bullshit-proof album, one that chronicles cruelty, oppression, abuse, and the persistent dehumanization of women. It’s a work of sustained and righteous outrage, weighing the wretched testimonies of survivors from Christine Blasey Ford to Apple herself, but it’s not just a catalog of grievances; it’s more like a howling psalm of lament for a world where evil is institutionalized, emblazoned on the family crest, feted at every stockholder’s meeting, handed a black robe and entrusted with the launch codes; a world in which abusers climb the ranks of power and privilege, and their victims choke down their own trauma until they metabolize it, and all become perpetrators in the end. Sound bleak? It’s actually pretty good for a laugh. Bolt Cutters is song-for-song one of the heaviest albums you’ll ever hear and joke-for-joke one of the funniest; among all the finely-wrought punchlines here the most hysterical moment might be Apple incanting the word “ladies” 18 times in a row, a shit-eating grin perceptible in her voice as she parrots a smooth-talker’s reassurances that lose their meaning to vain repetition. (Second funniest line: “Check out that rack of his,” delivered in an award-worthy deadpan; she’s talking about a man with a guitar collection, not that it really matters.) Apple’s humor is withering and often shocking, and if it seems like flimsy resistance against a culture of cruelty, her laughter must at the very least constitute some semblance of freedom. Truth be told, you may never hear a singer-songwriter record that sounds freer than this one, even with all the weight that it carries, the scars it proudly displays. Recorded largely in Apple’s home, Bolt Cutters seethes with restless energy, bursting through all formal constraints: You can hear raucous blues, high-stepping cabaret, and bristing punk, and that’s just in one song. The record is saturated with the sounds of Apple’s life, whether that be barking dogs or unpolished Greek choirs that materialize to offer riotous commentary. (“I would beg to dis-a-gree, but begging dis-a-grees with me!”) Bolt Cutters never takes on a clear shape, never settles where you think it will; it’s scuffed-up and smashed-in and bleeding at the edges. It’s also a percussion lover’s dream, and not just from the holy racket of drummer Amy Aileen Woods; you’ll also hear Apple herself banging away on whatever she can lay a hand to. (The liner notes credit her with beating on a chair.) Rough-hewn though it may be, Bolt Cutters is not primitive, amelodic, or anything less than hypnotic: It’s harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated, enough so that NPR’s Ann Powers invokes the rich traditions of the African diaspora while Jenn Pelly compares it to a symphony. Bolt Cutters is unmoored from expectation, not just in its sound but in its compositions; “For Her,” written for sexual abuse survivors who’ve had their testimonies disbelieved, skips from perkiness (“look at how feathered his cocks are! see how seamless his frocks are!”) to confrontation (“you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”) with a nimbleness that Hannah Gadsby must admire. It’s astonishing that any song released in 2020 could feel transgressive or unpermitted in its subject matter, but “Newspaper” does, unspooling a perverse bond formed between two women who were abused by the same man; it has the feel of someone breaching decorum and spilling all the family secrets, and Apple is unflinching. “On I Go” ends the album on a jaunt even as it holds on for mere survival; Apple announces that she keeps moving just to move, but doesn’t for a second expect to find anything like peace or relief. If she experiences any serenity on this album, it’s in the opening song “I Want You to Love Me,” where a moment of stillness is shattered by desire: “And while I’m in this body/ I want somebody to want.” On an album rich in guileless moments, this stark craving for love is particularly resonant. Could it be that these love-starved songs ultimately testify to love’s magnitude? Do the shadows prove the sun? Would Fiona Apple bullshit you?

Must Hears

Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling

Laura Marling conceived her seventh album as an epistle to an imagined audience; she hopes any future children she has will find in Song for Our Daughter “a sense of confidence in their own autonomy, decisions, and their experience of how their life can be led.” Perhaps this isn’t so different from any of the six albums that preceded it; Marling has always written about characters, usually women, who aspire to lives of courage even in the wake of trauma and grief. Besides, any folksinger’s offspring will know better than to parse these songs for scrupulously polished memoir, or to expect anything like the sage recitation of maternal advice— though there’s some of that in the title song, which wisely counsels against compromising conscience or integrity to impress men in expensive suits. It may be better to think of Marling’s epistle as a series of parables, which is not to say they lack autobiographical detail. “Fortune” starts with a germ of family history (Marling’s mother long kept a “bolt in the night” fund in case she ever needed to flee home, though she never used it), but builds into a larger meditation on non-rhetorical questions: Is it wiser to commit everything to love and family, or to leave yourself an exit plan? Meanwhile, there is something of a protective instinct in “The End of the Affair,” which takes its name from a Graham Greene novel but skips past the lurid details, lingering instead on the quiet strength required to walk away from a love you know will bring another person to ruin. You’ll notice that several of these songs are set against a backdrop of catastrophe: In “Blow By Blow,” immediately one of the most devastating Laura Marling break-up tunes, the narrator plucks wisdom from sorrow (“sometimes the hardest thing to learn/ is what you get from what you lose”), then curses herself for venturing hope (“I feel a fool, so do you/ for believing it could work out/ like some things do”). Another important throughline is Marling’s refusal to consider her female characters solely in relation to men; “Alexandra” rejoins a Leonard Cohen deep cut by pressing for a richer, more empathetic backstory (“what kind of woman gets to love you?”), and “Only the Strong” offers free songwriting advice (“I won’t write a woman with a man on my mind”). God shows up as a supporting character in two songs: In “Hope We Meet Again” he’s the truth seeker’s terminal destination, and in “For You” the kindness he shows through love and family draws doxology from a disbeliever. These songs are all gems, performed with casualness and warmth by Marling and an unnamed partner; the focus is on her guitar and piano, with the occasional swell of strings supplied by producer Ethan Johns. The one time Song for Our Daughter works up a full head of steam is “Strange Girl,” which splices the deadpan snarl of Blonde on Blonde to the elastic groove of Hejira. “Oh, young girl, please don’t bullshit me,” Marling chides, a reproof offered with insuppressible affection. Will any future Marling children recognize themselves in this song? Or is it just as well for them to assume it’s a song about their mother?

Southside | Sam Hunt

The second Sam Hunt album opens with little more than voice, guitar, and desolation. It’s a song called “2016,” named for a date that Hunt finds triggering— though perhaps for a different reason than the rest of us do. “I’d drive a thousand miles to Nashville/ walk in like I walked out/ put the tears back in your eyes,” Hunt pledges, a pithy summation of romantic regrets that he knows can’t be erased. The song’s rock-bottom remorse makes it a perfect prologue for a song cycle that’s all about losing love and then gaining it back, while its structural traditionalism makes it a bit of a head fake for an album that deepens Hunt’s casual inventiveness, the soft touch with which he conjoins past and present. Most of the rest of Southside underpins fiddles, banjos, and weepy pedal steels with stuttering, syncopated beats; it’s an aesthetic that Jon Caramanica christens Yo! Brother, Where Art Thou? Hunt didn’t necessarily create this fluid marriage of country, hip-hop, and R&B, but he is its most graceful and eloquent practitioner. If anything, Southside feels more comfortable in its craft than Montevallo did. Only on “Hard to Forget,” which sits a creaky Webb Pierce sample atop a lurching beat, does Hunt’s music approach “Old Town Road”-style novelty; he’s less interested in gimmicks than in finding a natural center of gravity between seemingly opposite poles. The specter of “Old Town Road” does suggest just how much has changed in the six years Hunt spent crafting this album, how his hip-hop-conversant style has become internalized by the country music industry even if nobody else makes it seem as unforced as Hunt does. The album’s long gestation is also suggestive of complications in Hunt’s personal life. In the wake of Montevallo he forsook his long-time sweetheart to chase country stardom; the two ultimately reunited and are now married. The songs on Southside don’t necessarily play as autobiography, but they do outline a trajectory of reconciliation and second chances, something most notable in the comparative severity of the heartbreak songs: “2016” is legitimately brutal, but back-album highlight “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s,” about the difficulties in cutting ties with someone who still pops up in your Instagram feed, can be appreciated as droll tragicomedy. All the aesthetic and thematic threads of Hunt’s music come together in “Body Like a Back Road,” an impossibly frictionless R&B jam that any aspiring loverman would be lucky to emulate; its sensuality comes not from the flush of first attraction but from the knowing intimacy of two long-time partners who’ve seen their share of hills and valleys. Hunt’s gift is making innovation sound comforting and familiar, but this song flips the script by making familiarity sound exciting and new. 

Heaven to a Tortured Mind | Yves Tumor

Another permutation from a master shapeshifter. If Safe in the Hands of Love was sprawling and ambitious, Heaven to a Tortured Mind is raunchy, punchy, and direct. It’s rock and roll as only Yves Tumor could imagine it, built from buzzsaw guitars, piercing horns, stabbing drums, and acid-wash synths abrasions that somehow coalesce into something majestic. Check out the artist’s preening performance at the mic, and the flop-sweat lyrics about the hazards of love. But mostly keep your ear on the fluid bass lines, which slither and slink and vouch for rock as a kind of dance music. Sounds simple enough— so how does Yves Tumor make it sound so transgressive?

Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa

Eleven unerring disco bangers, released into a plague. “Physical,” about moving your body as though your life depends on it, takes on a bittersweetness in the quarantine era; how many socially-distanced living room dance parties has it soundtracked? Perfect single “Don’t Start Now” conjures post-breakup defiance through precision-honed ultimatums: “If you don’t wanna see me dancing with somebody/ If you wanna believe that anything could stop me/ Don’t show up.” Never a diva but always a great singer, Lipa skips power moves in favor of coy swagger; she draws you in by playing cool, and always sounds like she’s having fun.

We Are Sent Here by History | Shabaka & the Ancestors
Rejoice | Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela 

A couple of recent albums marry African rhythms to kinetic jazz. Shabaka & the Ancestors is a rambunctious pan-cultural octet, led by the eschatology-obsessed Shabaka Hutchings (The Comet is Coming) and a squad of South African sidemen. Their album We Are Sent Here by History plays out like a bible of human experience: Spoken word pieces spin dystopian prophecies of cultural decay and economic collapse, while raging horns and rapturous voices raise psalms of lament, ascent, and supplication. But mostly, the framework is apocalyptic: Hutchings’ music hopes for a new world to be born once this one finally reaches its breaking point. Meanwhile, an album called Rejoice— from Afrobeat innovator Tony Allen and the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela— leans into low-key blues, grooves, and chants, reveling in simple pleasures: Allen’s rumbling polyrhythms, Masekela’s clean, clear phrasing. It makes a persuasive case that the world as we know it is hardly without its charms.

Welcome Surprise

Gigaton | Pearl Jam

Who would have imagined that calendar year 2020 would bless us with a new Pearl Jam song called “Superblood Wolfmoon”? That it would be… almost funky? That it would be… unexpectedly fun? If these are not the words you’d normally associate with Pearl Jam, send your respects to producer Josh Evan, who was brought in to loosen up a perennially straight-laced band, and frequently succeeds. Behold Eddie Vedder growling and cracking jokes (“I love clairvoyants cuz they’re out of this world”) amidst the disco pulse of “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” Check out Mike McCready churning out trashy riffs on “Take the Long Way,” one of the band’s best forays into power pop delirium. Of course, Vedder & Co. are famously set in their ways: They still rage against circumscribed freedoms, plead for better environmental stewardship, and fill the back half of the album with ballads. Pearl Jam will be Pearl Jam, but if Gigaton is any indication, that may mean more than you’d think.

Seasonal Selections

Motion | Lee Konitz (1961)

RIP to a legend. In a daunting discography, Motion is the one. Ethan Iverson says, “After Charlie Parker, any list of the most studied and transcribed alto solos must include the original five tracks on Motion.”

Out of the Afternoon | Roy Haynes Quarter (1962)

Listen for the snap, crackle, and pop of Haynes’ drum kit; for the strange flutter of flutes, kazoos, and bird calls from Roland Kirk. And listen for the supple swing from bass man Henry Grimes, an unsung hero of jazz and another cruel casualty of COVID-19.

John Prine | John Prine (1971)
Sweet Revenge | John Prine (1973)
In Spite of Ourselves | John Prine (1999)
The Tree of Forgiveness | John Prine (2018)

Start at the beginning. The self-titled debut plays like a greatest hits album, emanates empathy (“there’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes”), and sparkles with dad jokes (“I knew that topless lady had something up her sleeve”). From there, sample the scruffy charm of Sweet Revenge, which prompts Alfred Soto to observe: “I love John Prine because he treated the ditties and goofball tunes on Bob Dylan’s country experiment Nashville Skyline and country-tinged New Morning like other performers did ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.’” In Spite of Ourselves finds one of America’s greatest songwriters in interpretive mode, enlisting A-list support for boy-girl duets and proving that he loves country music for all the right reasons. (Come for the heartache, stay for the jokes!) The Tree of Forgiveness probably wasn’t intended as a final manifesto, but plays like one now— which is to say, wry, scrappy, cynical, hopeful, rural, Midwestern, full of wonder, endlessly lovable. Tell me: Who else is like John Prine?

Birds of My Neighborhood | The Innocence Mission (1999)

I heard someone remark that this year’s Lent was “the Lentiest Lent ever.” Through a season of pandemic-induced suffering and sorrow, no album has fortified me like this masterpiece from Don and Kerin Peris. They wrote these hushed, wintery ruminations in the midst of their own season of disappointment, frustration, and divine discontent; surely there is no other album that speaks as achingly about miscarriage and infertility. These songs are beset by lament, but lament never overcomes them. Hear the Gospel according to The Innocence Mission: “The world at night has seen the greatest Light/ too much Light to deny.”

Felis Catus & Silence | Leo Takami (2020)

File under: Quarantine Essentials. Sanity Savers. Pace Stabilizers. Mind Relaxers. Joy Machines. It’ll all seem so simple the first time you play it, but don’t let that fool you.

Might as Well Sing Along: 25 Favorite Albums, 2010-2019

miranda

It’s hard enough narrowing down a list of favorite albums from a given calendar year. Where to even begin whittling down a decade of music into just 25 records? What I settled on here was a simple question: Which were the albums I was most thankful for? Each of the records listed here are ones I’ve received with deep gratitude. I am so happy they exist.

Just a couple of housekeeping items. One, I have constrained myself to only picking one album per artist, though you might argue that #5 and #10 constitute a bit of a cheat. And two, I’ll simply acknowledge that the rankings here may ever so slightly contradict my rankings from previous year-end lists. Such is the fickle prerogative of the list-maker. I discourage overthinking it.

And now, some albums I love:

  1. Coloring Book | Chance the Rapper (2016)
    coloring book

The Christian theologian Dallas Willard has defined joy as a “pervasive, constant sense of wellbeing,” rooted in the sovereign character of the Divine. There are few figures in pop music who embody this virtue as ably as Chance the Rapper; and, while many will argue for Acid Rap as his achievement to date, it’s his third mixtape, Coloring Book, that shines the brightest with Chance’s inner light. Here he dusts off the dread and depression of tumultuous relationships, family conflicts, the waning of his youth, the onset of adult responsibilities; he does it with appealing buoyancy, attesting despite circumstance that all manner of things shall be made well. And, though the Chance tapes are charming for their shagginess and looseness, this one quietly codifies some of the decade’s most significant hip-hop inflection points: the genre’s embrace of melody; the common ground it’s staked with black church traditions.

  1. Far from Over | Vijay Iyer Sextet (2017)
    far from over

For his first album presiding over a large band, pianist and composer Vijay Iyer summons familiar sounds from the annals of jazz: The cool funk of Miles Davis’ late-60s combos, the rowdy charts of vintage Charles Mingus. Yet you can tell just from the song titles (“Nope,” “Wake,” “Into Action”) that Iyer isn’t interested in nostalgia; he’s tapping into the past as a way of engaging hard realities of the present. His songs sound like the 2010s felt— tense, raging, searching, disruptive, assertive. It’s a testament to jazz as an endlessly renewable resource, and a language of common purpose. 

  1. Band of Joy | Robert Plant (2010)
    band of joy

Upon the release of Robert Plant’s liveliest solo album, Band of Joy— an excavation of forgotten blues and country tunes, plus a reappraisal of more recent rock obscurities— critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted, “Some of these songs feel like they’ve been around forever and some feel fresh, but not in conventional ways: Low’s ‘Silver Rider’ and ‘Monkey’ feel like ancient, unearthed backwoods laments and the riotous ‘You Can’t Buy My Love’ feels as if it was written yesterday.” In other words, Band of Joy is the work of one of our most imaginative archivists, who ever since the days of Led Zeppelin has been drawn to folk songs as talismans, occult items, and mystic texts. It’s also the work of one of our most magnetic singers, largely surrendering his banshee wail in favor of charismatic whispers. The colorful, harmony-rick production from Buddy Miller (call it bubblegum country) pulls it all together into an album that makes the past sound sweet, strange, and seductive. 

  1. Isolation | Kali Uchis (2018)
    isolation

The irony of an album called Isolation is that it was conceived through collaboration. Singer Uchis partnered with auteurs like Damon Albarn, Tyler the Creator, and Steve Lacey to create its colorful parade of sounds— speaker-rattling hip-hop, dingy New Wave, pulsing reggaeton, throwback R&B. Its diversity of styles suggests a future where pop is female, pan-cultural, and cheerfully eclectic, yet even in their sprawl these songs are unmistakable as companion pieces. They attest to an artist who doesn’t compromise and knows how to get what she wants; who could’ve sold plenty of records singing retro soul but instead made a ruthless album of songs about the high stakes of independence; its allure and its cost. It’s a high watermark for pop records in the 2010s… freewheeling, borderless, confident in its point of view.

  1. Mr. Misunderstood | Eric Church (2015)
    mr misunderstood

Eric Church released a clutch of top-shelf country records over the course of the 2010s, and Mr. Misunderstood stands as the first among equals— the most compact, the most accessible, the most absorbing of the bunch. In under 40 minutes’ time, Church offers everything you could want in a country album: He is macho and ridiculous on “Chattanooga Lucy,” earnest and sentimental on “Three Year Old.” In the title song, he makes myths and raises hell; on “Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” he gets tears in his whisky. Long a proponent of prog and blue-collar rock, Church finesses a few metallic guitar blasts and some gangly funk into his gritty, otherwise unostentatious sound. And he is nearly unmatched in delivering a version of country that fits the contours of the mainstream while still making room for the Americana crowd—literally so in well-chosen vocal features for Rhiannon Giddens and Susan Tedeschi. 

  1. Universal Beings | Makaya McCraven (2018)
    universal beings

In the long-running project to build bridges between the jazz and hip-hop worlds, Makaya McCraven must surely be some kind of architect-savant. Universal Beings, his most full-bodied and exploratory album to date, draws connections between the two idioms that aren’t just cosmetic, but structural. Spanning four different bands and 90 minutes of music, the album creates raw material from soulful, improvisational playing, then chops it up and stitches it back together through seamless post-production work. It’s an approach to studiocraft that reaches back to Teo Macero’s innovative work in service to Miles Davis, but it also perfectly captures the fluid pacing and recontextualized sound effects that feel native to hip-hop. A mesmerizing suite, Universal Beings seems at first like a series of compelling micro-moments, but through repetition it becomes the kind of weather-changing music you can get lost in. Standing on the shoulders of his ancestors, McCraven has given us the sound of the present and future.

  1. MASSEDUCTION | St. Vincent (2017)
    masseduction

Annie Clark has always shown an affinity for strange, disruptive textures. What makes MASSEDUCTION her most bracing St. Vincent album is the presence of pop formalist Jack Antonoff, who frames Clark’s art-house sound effects in the colors of a big-budget blockbuster. Rather than sand away Clark’s rough edges, Antonoff’s production serves as a kind of pressure cooker; these songs are sleek, propulsive, readily accessible, and constantly on the verge of explosion. It’s a perfect aesthetic for Clark’s songwriting, which teems with unease: She sings about desire curdled into addiction, love soured into obsession, independence that’s really just isolation. Instantly memorable and doggedly off-kilter, MASSEDUCTION is one of the great feats of subversive pop.

  1. Honey | Robyn (2018)
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Robyn didn’t invent the “dancefloor as therapy” motif, but she may be its most persuasive proponent, and Honey her therapeutic masterwork. Following a hiatus from recording, Robyn wrote these nine songs while in the throes of heartache and grief; they are presented in chronological order, offering a diaristic glimpse into her journey toward healing. Honey includes some of the artist’s steeliest bangers, her most delicate textures, and her freest singing. In “Missing U” she sounds as though her mourning will last forever, and in “Ever Again” she pledges that her days of sadness are gone for good. Both songs are believable, the emotional anchors to this thesis study in pop vulnerability; this glitter bomb of human fracture.

  1. To Pimp a Butterfly | Kendrick Lamar (2015)
    to pimp a butterfly

The third album from Kendrick Lamar features a staged interview with the ghost of Tupac; the recurring presence of a mysterious temptress named Lucy (as in, Lucy-fer); and Lamar rapping in many different voices, inhabiting a full range of characters. It’s an album uniquely demanding (and rewarding) of scholarship, and, along with albums by Jamila Woods and Solange, distinctly uninterested in feigning accessibility for anyone outside its intended audience. Through its boldness and its purity of vision, Butterfly also became one of the most loved and admired records of the 2010s, perhaps in large part because it’s not merely a triumph of intellect. It’s also a masterpiece of conscience, the suddenly-successful son of Compton grappling with his status as a hero, a survivor, and a prophet in a land more fractured than he’d ever imagined, where the stakes of failure are life-and-death.

  1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy | Kanye West (2010)
    mbdtf

Before his dalliances with Republicanism, Kanye West wrestled with a more honest set of vices; he was a loudmouth, a boor, a good old-fashioned asshole whose intermittent interest in holiness was punctured by bondservice to his own ego. Maybe My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn’t the sound of a pilgrim making progress, but it does sound like the confession of a man who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, and continually does the very things his conscience deems contemptible. He was making Christian music long before he started making “Christian music,” and his opus-to-date remains a bravura show of vision and imagination; an album with the sweep of a blockbuster and the sophistication of an auteur’s masterwork. Contains not only the best West verses of the decade, but also his best jokes. 

  1. The Idler Wheel | Fiona Apple (2012)
    the idler wheel

A surprise contender for Best Headphones Album of the Decade, if only because each of its songs sound like a choir of voices permanently embedded deep in your brain. It’s the only Fiona Apple released in the past ten years, a pace that may flummox fans but results in one finely-cut jewel after another; these songs are perfect, equally withering in their humor, their self-loathing, their lust, and their rage. Perhaps some are songs to lovers and leavers, but more than anything they sound like songs to Apple herself, nightly wrestling matches with all her most obstinate, irreconcilable impulses. She matches the candor and gallows humor of her writing with vocal panache, cooing and roaring and occasionally turning herself into an actual choir. And the production, mostly just voice, piano, and drums, is streamlined but never spare: The black-and-white framing allows the songs to display a vivid spectrum of color. When people talk about “singer/songwriter” albums, The Idler Wheel is the platonic ideal they’re grasping for.

  1. Lover | Taylor Swift (2019)
    lover

Few would argue that Swift was one of the most consequential pop artists of the last decade, which saw her imperial era in full flourish. Some might quibble with the elevation of Lover over lauded albums like Red and 1989, but for anyone who’s ever wished Swift would drop her armor— that she’d stop writing defensively and instead write with humility, joy, confession, and abandon— then this is surely her most rewarding body of work. It also happens to be a smart consolidation of everything she does well, from colorful pop to wistful country. It includes her most comfortable and assured production from Jack Antonoff, her freest and most varied singing, and songs that would earn a spot on any best-of compilation. “ME!,” the endearingly silly and much-maligned lead single, turns out to be a helpful paradigm for the album as a whole: Long gifted in brand management, Swift now learns that it’s healthy to risk looking ridiculous sometimes.

  1. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens (2019)
    thereisnoother

The 2010s saw a number of records that ratified folk traditions as a versatile and eloquent language for describing the present day. One of the best such albums is Rhiannon Giddens’ there is no Other, which I like even more than I did a month ago, when I described it as “a luminous take on ‘world’ music,” “an earthy version of a ‘standards’ repertoire,” and “a celebration of some of our best conduits for connection: [The] shared love of musical instruments; songs that transcend culture; the grain of the human voice; a commitment to radical neighborliness in all its forms.” Giddens has rightly been celebrated as one of the best practitioners of quote-unquote Americana music, and this album demonstrates why such superlatives are both accurate and insufficient: Her affection for traditional idioms isn’t an end unto itself, but a gateway into a larger world.

  1. The Harrow and the Harvest | Gillian Welch (2011)
    the harrow and the harvest

Gillian Welch concludes The Harrow and the Harvest with something like a shrug: “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” she deadpans. What might seem like a descent into frivolous cliche is actually a perfectly mordant apex for an album of fatalistic, unsentimental songs about choices and consequences; sowing and reaping. Welch’s handsomest album (and still, maddeningly, her most recent one) is as stark, elemental, and mysterious as the works of William Shakespeare or the Holy Bible; she writes about virtue, vice, and vanished innocence in black-and-white tones that fit in seamlessly with the sparse guitar lines and vocal harmonies supplied by Dave Rawlings. Its bleakness feels like a promise, a timeless guarantee about how the world works; but then, so do its moments of tenderness, and its surprising glimpses of subversive humor.

  1. Ghosteen | Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2019)
    ghosteen

Nick Cave’s Ghosteen is beautiful for many reasons, not least how it resists at every turn easy summarization: Though written following the loss of Cave’s teenage son, it’s not really an album about death; though attentive to the process of grief, it’s not purely a downer; though respectful of the private nature of bereavement, it avoids isolation and actively seeks connection. Perhaps most surprising of all is that, capping a trilogy of ambient meditations with the Bad Seeds, it represents Cave’s most extreme and fulfilling adventure into softness. An epic and majestic whisper of an album; a masterpiece of intimacy. 

  1. Hell on Heels | Pistol Annies (2011)
    hell on heels

So many of the tension points that ran through country music in the 2010s are distilled in this first Pistol Annies record. It walks a highwire between the mainstream and Americana idioms, never sounding cloying and never sounding rote in its earthy outlaw approximations. And, years before the formation of the Highwomen, Hell on Heels puts the stories of women in the spotlight: It’s filled with one-liners that are by turns riotous and devastating, touching on everything from booze to pills, from shotgun weddings to the housewife’s malaise. It’s an endlessly appealing record not only because the writing is razor-sharp, but because it so ably demonstrates the individual personalities and the collective power of the Annies. Their three releases of the 2010s comprise the decade’s most satisfying trilogy, and this slot could almost have gone to the spirited and ranging Interstate Gospel, but Hell on Heels remains first among equals in its compactness, purity, and grit.

  1. LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods (2019)
    legacy legacy

An instant R&B classic from a singer who’s now barely in her 30s. And also, an album generations in the making. Here’s what I wrote about it last month: “Ancestry is the guiding principle in these songs, and Woods apprehends it not as something confined to a history book or a genetics test so much as an animating force that dwells inside her; each song summons the spirit of a luminary influence, whether Eartha Kitt or Muddy Waters or Octavia Butler, and Woods taps into their lived experiences to navigate the complexities of righteous anger, generational trauma, and creative autonomy. Her writing is bruised and courageous, often at the same time, and reaches a cathartic apex in ‘BALDWIN,’ in which she dares to love even her enemies and her persecutors. A font of wisdom, and every song’s a banger.”

  1. We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service | A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
    tribe

Contains just about anything one could want out of a rap album, including some things that are in short supply these days. The back-and-forth, tag-team rap acrobatics? The high density of jokes? The lithe funk and combustible jazz? The dense, Bomb Squad-style production? This miraculous and much-delayed final album from A Tribe Called Quest checks every box. And oh yeah: How about political observations that made it seem almost prophetic upon its release, three days after the election of the 45th President, and still sound wise today? And some final words to and from Phife Dawg, whose death hangs over the album but never curtails its joy? It’s all here in Tribe’s ragged, wondrous swan song.

  1. undun | The Roots (2011)
    undun

Nine years later, has anyone in the hip-hop mainstream truly caught up with the genius of undun? The Roots’ deep, conceptual epic tells the story of a young man who sees a life of crime as his only escape from poverty; narrated in reverse, Memento-style, the record opens in the afterworld and moves back through every fated decision point in the man’s life, becoming a complicated and wise meditation on the nature of free will and how circumstance dictates the choices available to us. It extends empathy to the kinds of characters hip-hop grandiosity often leaves in the margins, the guys whose champagne wishes never come true. It covers some of the same thematic ground as Kendrick’s masterful good kid, M.A.A.D. city, though it’s both more complex and more digestible. The full-band performances are crisp and compelling; Black Thought’s couplets among his most deft and revealing. An art record that’s addictive, accessible, and profound.

  1. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves (2018)
    goldenhour

A glorious feast of comfort food: On her most stylish and assured album to date, Kacey Musgraves leans hard into classic country, supple soft rock, and unostentatious pop. It’s a sound so easeful and undemanding, it brought the term “roséwave” back into popular use. And yet, the album is also deeply nourishing. Written in the dawning light of a new marriage, Golden Hour apprehends joy and contentment first with skepticism, then with gratitude; it abides emotional nuance without forcing simplistic narratives, which means one song is about being “happy and sad at the same time,” and there’s really no better way to put it. Musgraves, already a mover and shaker for her picture-perfect songs about small town malaise, is unguarded and mostly snark-free here, choosing to view her happy and sad world through the lens of wonder. Oh, what a worldview.

  1. The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert (2016)
    the weight of these wings

Though it was assumed the sixth Miranda Lambert record would address her divorce from Blake Shelton, the tenor of the album probably isn’t what anyone expected. It neither rages nor sulks, but instead uses pain as an opportunity for earnest self-reflection. Unmoored from the life she once knew, Lambert takes to the road, a series of gypsy anthems, highway soliloquies, and prodigal laments serving as a unifying conceit for double-album sprawl. It all hangs together remarkably well, not only because it sounds like Lambert’s working with a consistent band throughout but also because the songwriting is so unerring. She de-glamorizes barroom confessions in “Ugly Lights,” grounds herself in concrete particulars in “Pink Sunglasses,” admits she’s a runner at heart in “Vice,” and alchemizes her pain into wisdom on “Keeper of the Flame.” As usual, her choice in cover songs is pitch-perfect; a song called “Covered Wagon” sounds like it was made for this epic collection of heavy-hearted roadside rambles. Belongs on any list of the most majestic heartbreak albums of all time.

  1. Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago (2016)
    real midnight

The decade’s most surprising discovery, and its most reliable dispenser of joy. Birds of Chicago— essentially the husband-wife duo of Allison Russell and JT Nero— are the kindest, most genial of bands, a fact that’s by no means unrelated to the music they make: Where some groups are built for mystique, the Birds of Chicago emanate open-hearted compassion. So you’re welcome to hear Real Midnight, an album that portends the apocalypse and warns that all our earthly allegiances are fleeting, as an election year homily, but its concerns are actually more domestic: How do we carry on when we know the lives we make here will eventually vanish? It is perhaps the most convincing and relatable album ever made about the particular jitters of new parents and young families, and if that sounds like a downer, rest assured that Real Midnight is anything but. It puts its joy into practice through rich gospel harmonies and massive sing-along hooks; it rocks and rumbles with uncontainable hope. After Real Midnight the band made the more muscular and really just as good Love in Wartime, solidifying Nero as one of our sharpest songwriters. And 10 years from now, when you’re reading an Artist of the Decade feature on Russell, you’ll want to go back to Real Midnight (“Kinderspel” and “Barley” in particular) as a kind of origin story; the moment we all realized we beheld a legend.

  1. The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry (2019)
    the gospel according to water review

Over the course of the decade, Joe Henry released four solo albums under his own name, each one bearing witness to a singular songwriter, equally gifted in writing melodies that sound like old standards and lyrics that work as stand-alone poetry. The Gospel According to Water, the fourth and best album in that sequence, arrived in the aftermath of a life-shaking medical diagnosis, and has the unmistakable feeling of everything being brought into sudden focus. The words here are scalpel-sharp, the melodies more robust than ever; what’s most beguiling about the album, though, is how little it sounds like an album about cancer or death or loss, and how much it sounds like a wise and buoyant meditation on what it means to carry on in a world that can pull the rug out from under you at any turn. Eschewing certainty for mystery, dogma for humility, and security for surrender, Henry’s Gospel offers hard-won peace and contentment. And it sounds great, too, an unvarnished document of fleet-fingered guitar lines, winding reeds, and Henry’s freest singing. Just when you think it can’t get any more beautiful or deep, the Birds of Chicago show up to sing harmony. It’s one revelation after another; a deep well of blessings.

  1. Black Messiah | D’Angelo (2014)
    black messiah

The third D’Angelo album was nearly a decade and a half in the making. And yet, by some accountings, it was also something of a rush job. Moved by scenes of the Ferguson protests and the dawning Black Lives Matter movement, the legendary singer sought to choose a side and speak his mind. The result, a song called “The Charade,” is a vision of black bodies outlined in chalk; a prayer for dignity, a voice for the voiceless. Maybe nothing else on Black Messiah is quite so quote-unquote political. But then again, each of its songs, including the songs of romance and the songs of resistance, ask for humanity to be acknowledged in its fullness. They are about the hard work of being physically present, alert, and engaged. It’s an even better album than Voodoo, D’Angelo’s second album and first masterpiece, if only because it’s shapelier; where the previous venture was full of loose-limbed jams, the songs on Black Messiah are sculpted, punchy, and precise. That doesn’t mean they don’t contain multitudes, including some of the most alluring textures heard anywhere in the 2010s— the raucous din of “1000 Deaths,” the sweet caress of “Really Love,” the blurry supplications of “Prayer.” An album of monstrous grooves, unfailing vision, big heart, and heavy conscience.

  1. The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine (2011)
    the long surrender

The decade’s most affecting and sustaining record was made by a husband-wife folk duo from Ohio, who spent more than two decades working the roads, playing their asses off every night, and making one beautiful album after another before finally releasing this haunted meditation on dashed dreams and faded glory. Songs about the rock-and-roll life are almost always insular and dull, but The Long Surrender redeems them into a prayerful, candid, and funny song cycle about the possibility of grace. “Rave On” swaps tour-bus glamor for the concrete realities of obeying a calling, giving yourself away to a mission even when you can’t see its fruit. “Infamous Love Song” retells the history of the band as a winking, Leonard Cohen-style epic, testifying to the grind and churn required to make love and revelation tangible options. At every turn the album groans with the weight of experience, and sparkles with the flash of earned wisdom: It is the masterwork from unsung masters, and feels like a consolidation of everything they do well. Joe Henry, producer of many of the decade’s best-sounding albums, provides Over the Rhine with boon accompaniment, assembling the Band of Sweethearts posse and guiding them through moments of mystic swirl and acoustic clarity. All of it pinnacles in “All My Favorite People,” a hymn of solidarity to anyone who’s ever felt beat-up, spit-out, or badly broken. The Long Surrender brings to mind a promise of Jesus: Blessed are the poor in spirit. And it offers one of its own: That none of us are too far gone to fall into the arms of grace.