The team at In Review Online is closing the book on 2020… and not a moment too soon. Before we turn our attention to 2021’s fresh page and new crop of releases, let me plug just three holdovers from last year that I really enjoyed: There’s Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman, a majestic, thoroughly winsome live album from Margo Price; The New OK, which is probably my favorite Drive-by Truckers record since 2008; and the excellent third volume of “lost songs” from Gillian Welch, which I’ve already extolled.
I never quite feel like I have the time I’d like for re-issues, anthologies, and other repackagings of “old” music; nor the patience to give splashy box sets and deluxe editions the attention they require. The list I’m offering here is embarrassingly incomplete, but does offer a few archival releases that have captured my ears and my imagination over 2020.
01. Palo Alto | Thelonious Monk
Unless you were lucky enough to see him in person, this is about as close to an ideal Monk experience as you’re likely to get— a chance to hear his touring troupe in full dance-band mode, thumping through hits and standards in a sweaty high school gym, all of it captured in gloriously granulated sound by an anonymous janitor. It’s a winning portrait of a well-oiled band that played themselves ragged, even at the most workaday gigs. For its rough-and-ready energy, it might even be the best live Monk album on the market.
02. Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs | Gillian Welch
Close to 20 years ago, Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, spent a weekend dashing off reel-to-reel demos of new originals, plus a few choice covers thrown in for good measure; never intending these songs as anything but contract fulfillment, they promptly locked them in a vault. When the recordings were nearly lost in a Nashville flood, Welch and Rawlings suddenly realized that there’s actually some stuff here they cared enough to want to save, resulting in three separate volumes of “lost songs” that are infinitely appealing in their casualness. Where Welch’s canonical albums all feel carefully-composed and assembled, there is a wonderful looseness to the way these recordings find them dallying with gospel, mountain music, standards, even rock and roll. In fact, the most revelatory songs here tend to be the ones that feel most tossed-off, precisely because they show a side that Welch usually keeps hidden. All three volumes are superb, but if you only have time for one, start with the third one.
03. Sign ‘o’ the Times Deluxe Edition | Prince
The best Prince albums— and this one is certainly in the top three— often gave the impression that he was capable of anything. The astonishing thing about these Sign ‘o’ the Times outtakes is that they only reinforce that idea, revealing that Prince had so many big ideas he had to leave many of them on the cutting room floor. The original album has never sounded more sterling: It remains an album by turns rousing and distressing, using dysfunctional relationships as a mirror for a fraying society, and ending with Prince’s rainbow coalition dancing their troubles to the foot of the Cross.
04. Wildflowers & All the Rest | Tom Petty
A model for how deluxe albums should be constructed, eschewing academia in favor of sheer listenability. There are separate discs devoted to demos, outtakes, and live stuff, and while each section is satisfying in its own right, they ultimately serve as reminders of how disarmingly mean, funny, and heartbroken this album was in the first place.
05. Armed Forces Super Deluxe Edition | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Initially released in 1979, Armed Forces— an album of tuneful, terse songs about fascism— came at the midpoint of Costello’s initial hot streak with The Attractions, and suggested a songwriter far more sophisticated than his bespectacled-punk reputation let on. A remastered version of the album sounds superb, sparkling melodies and elegant performances laced with strychnine paranoia. The real treasure here is a bounty of rough, raucous live material, which presents Costello’s earliest hits in a disorienting blur of masuline malaise, emotional trauma, and political anxiety. You won’t find many opportunities to hear The Attractions conjure this level of mayhem.
05. The White Stripes Greatest Hits | The White Stripes
A lovingly curated anthology that will remind you of what made this band so special, thoughtfully sequenced to help you hear old songs in a fresh light. When I scan the track list, there are a few songs that I miss. But when the album is playing, I don’t miss anything at all.
06. Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987
A fascinating, highly listenable immersion in a scene that’s too often overlooked by anthologists. Basically, you’ll get 28 songs by bands you’ve probably never heard of, all of them clearly toiling in the shadow of R.E.M. Though none of these songs registered as anything beyond regional hits, almost all of them are delightful in their propulsive melodies, rich vocal harmonies, and jingle-jangle guitar riffs. Listen to the whole thing, then play Reckoning as an encore.
07. Just Coolin’ | Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
Because Blakey never had the same mystique or tortured vibe as Coltrane and Monk, the arrival of a never-released Jazz Messengers album doesn’t draw the fanfare it probably should. It doesn’t feel like a lost relic or an unearthed page of jazz scripture so much as it’s merely another chance to hear one of the all-time great bands, including the great Lee Morgan on trumpet, lean hard into soulful, bluesy bop. By the way: This was recorded around the same time as Blakey’s masterpiece, Moanin’, and with mostly the same personnel. And every song on it cooks.
I’ve clearly dropped the ball this year, at least as far as blogging goes. I won’t make any excuse for myself, except to say that the value in criticism can seem tenuous on a good day, and has sometimes felt like an unseemly luxury during a global pandemic and a fraught election season. It is a luxury that my mental and emotional bandwidth just haven’t been about to accommodate. Maybe I can make it up to you by recommending 25 albums that have quieted, comforted, challenged, and sustained me throughout this strange year.
As ever, there are purely personal selections, and if you ask me to redo this list in even a week’s time some of the entries might change. But all are outstanding, and all have gotten a lot of play here at Hurst HQ.
One slight departure from previous years: For whatever reason, it suits my mood to start with the #1 slot this year, rather than do my customary countdown. Life is short. Let’s get right to it.
01. Folklore | Taylor Swift
Swift has always been a remarkable songwriter. Nevertheless, her eighth album reveals a marked maturing of her craft—not so much in her casual swearing, but in the blood she draws from clean, uncluttered metaphors (“I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water”). And, she remains unequalled in writing show-stopping bridges, using them to deliver narrative pivots and grand flourishes of emotion. Her writing on Folklore is so structured that you can almost imagine these songs as standards (bring on the Tony Bennet versions); with no need to leave them legible for stadium crowds, however, Swift deliberately obscures them in misty, spongy arrangements, primarily via The National’s Aaaron Dessner. There is a faintly transgressive pleasure in the thought that Folklore might give millions of listeners their gateway drug into dream-pop, minimalism, New Age, and folk music, but the more straightforward pleasure is hearing Swift navigate new sounds with the most understated, assured singing of her career. For as much fuss as Swift has made about writing in a less autobiographical mode, she remains her own greatest character, allowing Folklore to glow with tiny embers of self-recognition (“I’ve never been a natural/ all I do is try, try, try”). On an album born in isolation, Swift stretches further and probes deeper than ever.
02. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
Deployed like emergency rations at the peak of the George Floyd protests, RTJ4 is an album born of a long, weary history of violence and dehumanization, and for a few tense weeks felt like the only new music worthy of its fraught era. Mercifully, it’s also a rap lover’s dream, an album targeted at the pleasure centers of old heads and connoisseurs. Clattering production, worthy of the Bomb Squad, shapes street noise and psychedelic sound effects into the sleekest, funkiest, most undiluted Run the Jewels record yet, and provides the perfect cacophony to feed the duo’s wisecracks, breaking news bulletins, and arresting autobiography. The buddy-comedy routine between El-P and Killer Mike has always gestured toward nihilism, but that’s getting less and less credible; they remain crusaders for the golden age rap records they grew up on, unwilling to surrender that sound to nostalgia or obsolescence. They draw strength from an aesthetic, but more than that, they draw strength from each other: Underneath the cynicism, RTJ4 is really a sweet album about brotherhood.
03. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
Song for song and joke for joke, Apple is as funny as any of her male peers— and that’s true even if you count Bob Dylan among her clique, which you probably should. With pitch-black cabaret routines and put-downs worthy of a battle rapper, Apple is unflinching in her interrogation of personal grievances and societal abuses that fester in #metoo’s wake. A few songs capture the old Fiona, showing her to be undiminished as a piano troubadour of peerless phrasing and panache; more characteristic are songs that wrest homemade percussion and barking dogs into a sound that is raucous, uninhibited, and untamed by genre.
04. Aftermath | Elizabeth Cook
Cook journeyed through hell to make this record, surviving loss, divorce, and rehab. You can hear all of that in the music— not because it’s confessional, but because Cook’s slanted, complicated narratives are so full of rage, despair, black comedy, and hard-won empathy. The hardscrabble honky-tonk of her early albums wouldn’t quite work for songs so prickly, so she instead fills them with gnarled riffs, stomping rhythms, and elliptical takes on heartland rock.
05. Rough and Rowdy Ways | Bob Dylan
Imagine listening to this, the best Dylan record since Love & Theft, and thinking he was a maladroit singer. Imagine believing that a younger man could bring a softer touch to the blues numbers, or more grit to the torch songs. Imagine hearing Bob’s tender litany of emotional touchpoints in “Murder Most Foul” and still thinking it was just a song about JFK.
06. Women in Music Part III | HAIM
To fully appreciate all the weird, scraggly textures on HAIM’s third album, consider how easy it might have been for them to coast forever on their sweet, sisterly harmonies and euphoric pop melodies. Both are omnipresent here, but exist within a larger ecosystem: Leaning into their earnestness, their goofy sense of humor, their ear for noise, and their instinct for studiocraft, HAIM has altered the language of classic rock into a dialect all their own.
07. Who Are You? | Joel Ross
Following a smooth, assured debut, the young vibraphonist and bandleader returns with a small-group, straight-ahead jazz album bursting at the seams with ideas and invention. Ross’ music is a thrilling reminder of how the jazz tradition offers endless permutations of texture, rhythm, and tone.
08. Blackbirds | Bettye LaVette
On previous albums, the world’s greatest soul singer laid claim to the songs of the British Invasion and the towering catalog of Bob Dylan. Astonishing, she’s just now making an album of songs popularized by Black women— with one Beatles tune to serve as a coda. LaVette locates the pain and resolve in song after song of heartache and despair, all of which gain their full meaning through a harrowing “Strange Fruit.”
09. We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
Nothing ever sounds too effortful on a Whitney Rose album. For her fourth, she proves herself once again to be a singer of impeccable instinct and restraint, and a graceful navigator of soaring country-rock, slinky blues, and tender ballads. Her craft is seamless and unforced, making it easy to take for granted just how smart and sturdy the record really is.
10. Felis Catus and Silence | Leo Takami
One of the year’s great left-field surprises is this sweet, playful little record from Japan, which elegantly blends jazz, ambient, and New Age music with clean, folksy melodies. Its tranquility offers a welcome refuge from hurry and anxiety.
11. Rainbow Sign | Ron Miles
Summoning the same all-star band that joined him on I Am a Man— merely one of the richest , deepest jazz records of the past decade— cornetist Ron Miles offers another collection of handsome, stately originals: Songs that move gracefully from meditation to mischief, from deep blues to spirited swing.
12. Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling
Just 30 years old and with seven solo albums to her credit, Laura Marling gets deeper, wiser, and more emotionally articulate with each release. Her latest is filled with stories of collapse and resolve, and shows that she’s gotten scarily good at perfectly-crafted couplets designed to break your heart. Here’s one: “I feel a fool, so do you/ For believing it could work out, like some things do.”
13. Mama, You Can Bet! | Jyoti
Recording in a one-woman-band arrangement a la Prince or Stevie Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow recreates the loose, exploratory feel of a jazz ensemble— and, sustains an affectionate, referential dialogue with the lineage of Black music.
14. Letter to You | Bruce Springsteen
Deeply nostalgic, but not uncritically so. It’s as if Springsteen is holding a seance with a younger version of himself, writing new songs that reflect on his glory days while resurrecting old ones from the vantage point of age and experience. All of it summons the majestic heft of the E-Street Band, who wear familiarity as a badge of honor. Together, they weigh the burden of mortality against the fleeting joy that rock and roll can bring, frequently making it sound like a worthy trade-off.
15. That’s How Rumors Get Started | Margo Price
Price has made a couple of handsome country albums, but what many of us now realize is that we’ve always wanted her to make trashy little rock and roll records, full of grudges and bile. This one, produced by Price with Surgill Simpson, gleefully obliges.
16. CHICKABOOM! | Tami Neilson
If it’s a knockout voice you’re looking for, you’re unlikely to find better than Neilson, a singer of rarified power, precision, and personality. Past albums have run the gamut of country and soul, but CHICKABOOM! offers something distilled: A pure concentrate of raucous, roadhouse rhythm and blues.
17. Headlight | Della Mae
Play any given minute of any given Della Mae album (including this one) and you’ll get all the evidence you need that these women can play. But Headlight offers a lot more than pure bluegrass virtuosity: It’s their richest and most expansive work yet, accommodating feisty love songs and topical laments; crawling blues, rowdy hoedowns, swaying ballads, even gospel choruses.
18. We’re New Again | Makaya McCraven & Gil Scott-Heron
For the third and best airing of Scott-Heron’s stirring I’m New Here material, drummer and producer McCraven dices and splices the late poet’s spoken word recitations, setting his rich words against vivid musical backdrops. The resulting album honors not just Scott-Heron’s prodigal wanderings through abuse and addiction, but also his legacy as a bridge between jazz and hip-hop.
19. Private Lives | Low Cut Connie
It was only a matter of time before the extroverted Adam Weiner— our most dependable purveyor of down and dirty rock and roll— set his ambitions to a concept album. Private Lives condenses 17 songs into 55 minutes, and creates a patchwork of quiet desperation, nagging self-doubt, and unspoken prayers for redemption. Thankfully, it still sounds like down and dirty rock and roll.
20. All the Good Times | Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
Ten cover songs reveal a different side of Welch and Rawlings. Where they are normally fastidious, here they sound carefree and casual; just a couple of crazy kids with time on their hands, some reel-to-reel recording equipment, and a burning love for American folk music. Come for Gillian’s sensitive reading of a John Prine tune; stay for Dave’s immaculate Dylan snarl.
21. Source | Nubya Garcia
The young sax prodigy’s first album as a leader fulfills all the promise she’s shown through her guest spots and supporting roles. The album’s vibrant pan-culturalism reminds you that she comes from an immigrant family, while the speaker-rattling bass suggests an upbringing on hip-hop; but it’s her questing solos that reveal how much she’s learned from her elders, and how much history informs her take on the shape of jazz to come.
22. Half Moon Light | The Lone Bellow
Gifted in so many tragically unfashionable ways, the Brooklyn trio delivers earnest anthems to a world that’s largely put such things behind it. For anyone with room in their hearts for a bit of the ol’ U2-style grandeur, this album is pitch-perfect in channeling loss and grief into catharsis, and in making intimate reflections sound universal. The cruelest irony of all: Some of these songs would sound great in an arena.
23. Total Freedom | Kathleen Edwards
A beloved singer and songwriter emerges from self-imposed exile, proving that she’s lost neither her delicate touch nor her dry sense of humor. These warm, earnest originals speak to the bittersweetness of domestic life, highlighting isolation and regret, yet still finding room for gratitude. Nearly every song on the album is darker and more conflicted than it first sounds, which lends surprising ballast to Edwards’ seemingly-breezy country-rock.
24. RoundAgain | Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, & Brian Blade
Reconvening nearly 30 years after their last studio summit— that would be Redman’s excellent MoodSwing, from 1994—four of the leading luminaries in jazz get together for egoless, leaderless improvisation. In a fraught year, RoundAgain offers a balm: The sound of easy chemistry between long-time pals, lost together in a spirit of play.
25. Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa
Arriving just in time to soundtrack a few million quarantine dance parties, the young British singer’s second album offers a master class in state-of-the-art disco. Singles and could-be singles pile up one after the other— coiled, propulsive, fat-free— and quickly create the illusion that you’re listening to a greatest hits collection.
Honorable Mention: Evermore | Taylor Swift
All hail Taylor Swift: Our most productive quarantiner, our most essential pop star, and the redeeming poet laureate of 2020’s malaise. Surprise-released a few days after I drafted this list, her second album of the year expands upon the moody aesthetic of Folklore, doubling down on its autumnal vibe but also sharpening and clarifying it with a dab of 1989 gloss, a few left-field experiments, and at least one track that could almost fit in on country radio. It’s less surprising, less consistent, and more adventurous than the album that came before it, impressive enough to warrant its inclusion as an unranked bonus pick.
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:
- Coloring Book | Chance the Rapper (2016)
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.
- Far from Over | Vijay Iyer Sextet (2017)
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.
- Band of Joy | Robert Plant (2010)
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.
- Isolation | Kali Uchis (2018)
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.
- Mr. Misunderstood | Eric Church (2015)
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.
- Universal Beings | Makaya McCraven (2018)
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.
- MASSEDUCTION | St. Vincent (2017)
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.
- Honey | Robyn (2018)
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.
- To Pimp a Butterfly | Kendrick Lamar (2015)
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.
- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy | Kanye West (2010)
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.
- The Idler Wheel | Fiona Apple (2012)
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.
- Lover | Taylor Swift (2019)
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.
- there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens (2019)
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.
- The Harrow and the Harvest | Gillian Welch (2011)
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.
- Ghosteen | Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2019)
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.
- Hell on Heels | Pistol Annies (2011)
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.
- LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods (2019)
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.”
- We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service | A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
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.
- undun | The Roots (2011)
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.
- Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves (2018)
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.
- The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert (2016)
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.
- Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago (2016)
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.
- The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry (2019)
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.
- Black Messiah | D’Angelo (2014)
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.
- The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine (2011)
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.