After debating how many records to list and how much if any to write, I decided on a Top 40 — to mirror the yearly “revisited” lists I’ve been doing on this site too occasionally — and stream-of-consciousness notes rather than contained write-ups for each album — or no writing at all. If you only want to look at the list, you can scroll to the bottom of the post. (And it was so hard to find the time for these scribblings that the companion film list will probably just be a list.)
It was not my intent to have zero 2019 albums on a best of the decade list. Is it me or was it 2019? There are six records from 2018 here. That wasn’t so long ago. Maybe it’s not me?
I set only one ground rule for myself: No more than two albums per artist. In practice, this only impacted two names, my choices for the pop artists of the decade.
The first tops the list. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city (No. 1) is a portrait of an artist as a young man, a Compton coming-of-age story packed with different characters, stories, and perspectives without being overpacked with guest stars. With only space for one more Lamar on the list, I went against what’s probably consensus in preferring the direct, masterful Damn. (No. 11) over the deep, difficult To Pimp a Butterfly.
My other artist-of-the-decade candidate didn’t place an album in my Top 10 and remains highly underrated despite her commercial success. Maybe if Miranda Lambert had a dick and some facial hair she’d get the kind of modern-outlaw respect the likes of Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson do, but as is, the Miranda Lambert Diaspora placed six albums on this list, and it would have been seven had I not decided that doubling up her girl-group Pistol Annies would mean tripling Lambert herself.
The Annies’ debut Hell on Heels is pretty perfect, but I think their third album, Interstate Gospel (No. 20), takes the collective songwriting/singing of the project into more profound places, especially on “The Best Years of My Life” and “Milkman.” Lambert’s own Platinum (No. 31) isn’t her best solo album — that would be the prior decade’s Crazy Ex-Girlfried — but it’s a commercial blockbuster whose stylistic and emotional range shows off. My favorite Annies-related album, though, is Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class (No. 14), the decade’s orneriest and most perceptive look modern small-town life.
Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark co-wrote the Lambert hit “Mama’s Broken Heart” before breaking out as solo acts. Clark’s 12 Stories (No. 28) is a little bit Tom T. Hall and a little bit Rosanne Cash, a cycle of precise character sketches, many of which spin out of small moments in the lives of female protagonists. Musgraves’ Golden Hour (No. 17) is a roots-pop-disco tour de force that updates the countrypolitan ideal in a way that feels like self-discovery.
Lori McKenna has written songs with or for all three Pistol Annies (the third member is Ashley Monroe, whose solo “Two Weeks Late” is one of the best country songs of the decade), and just about everyone else in mainstream country music with any taste at all. Tim McGraw had a massive hit with McKenna’s “Humble & Kind.” But when McGraw sings it, he sounds like what he is: A pro gifted a great song. When McKenna sings it — on her own career-best album The Bird & the Rifle (No. 24) — she sounds like what she is: A mother singing her own words to her own children. It might not even be the album’s best song. That might be “Halfway Home.”
Two other great 2010s albums from female country singers that exist fully outside the Lambert/Annies sphere of influence: Was veteran Lee Ann Womack’s career-best The Lonely, the Lonesome and the Gone (No. 18) modern country or (so-called) Americana? Answer: Lee Ann Womack is a grown-ass woman and is above your petty genre distinctions and squabbles, which are irrelevant. Here she pulls a bunch of Nashville pros off the assembly line and off to her own personal promised land. They respond like it’s 1968 at American Studios and Chips Moman is behind the board.
Another: Margo Price’s Memphis-recorded All American Made (No. 30). On this even-better follow-up to Price’s breakthrough Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, I first worried political songs with titles such as “Pay Gap” and “American Made” would be too on the nose. Instead, they aim lower: A knife to the gut. The former renders its title phrase a deeper metaphor en route to a bilious, plainspoken climax. But the latter is a Song of the Decade candidate, both specific in its laments and mystical in a way (“I’m dreaming of that highway that stretches out of sight”).
There was one dude in the country/roots vein who made my list, and he made it twice. There are debut albums and there are rebirth albums. Jason Isbell’s Southeastern (No. 4) is the latter, and while he got more directly political later, this intensely personal album is tethered to a wider awareness that deepens its personal gratitude. Seeing Isbell touring behind it, in the South, felt very much like seeing Lucinda Williams touring behind Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in the late 1990s. It felt like a whole people coming together to say: We choose you. You can’t really follow up a record like that, but Isbell did it pretty well and then even better with The Nashville Sound (No. 22), which peaks very high on the hushed “If We Were Vampires” and the defiant “Hope the High Road.”
Isbell was the solo singer/songwriter/guitarist of the decade, but didn’t quite release my favorite album in that vein. That would be Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (No. 3). The one bit of pure fiction (“Elevator Operator”) opens the album and is perfection. The rest is a more diaristic collection of often visionary songs about everyday stuff: Mulling pesticides in her vegetables and the nickel-and-dimed-to-death of her latte habit. Going for a swim at a public pool and reluctantly bungalow shopping in the burbs. She’s a material girl. This is a material world. Statement of principles: “Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami, honey.” Introvert’s anthem: “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party.” Favorite song of the decade, maybe: “Depreston.”
Barnett’s sister in alt-rock of the everyday: Elizabeth Morris. On Allo Darlin (No. 38), her band’s eponymous debut, Morris’ recipe for modest good living includes making chili with her sweetie, swimming on vacation, arguing about movies and listening to Johnny Cash and the Chiffons. Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose: “Though I’ve got no money to burn/I’m gonna burn what I’ve got/And though this band is awful/I like them an awful lot.”
Barnett’s an Aussie and Morris is a Brit, but nine different actual American rock bands (they still exist!) made my list, two of them twice. No band since Steely Dan is as much smarter than their critics as Vampire Weekend, but the latter is so much more open-hearted. They’re above it all, and if Contra (No. 15) is a cryptic, lovelorn travelogue that took them off campus and out into the world, Modern Vampires of the City (No. 2) marshalls their immense melodic and expressive gifts for a transition-to-adulthood album that’s broader and deeper but no less knottily personal.
Vampire Weekend are sorta stars. Chances are if you aren’t a rock critic or a Rust Belt barfly, you have no idea who or what Wussy is. Chuck Cleaver writes wry, self-deprecating songs and puts them across in a distinctive Appalachian Neil Young whine. Bandmate Lisa Walker writes bemused but hopeful songs and puts them across with a yearning yelp that hits me harder than any voice in music this century. Attica! (No. 6) is their most ambitious album and also their best. Unless Funeral Dress II (No. 12) is. An obscurity even in the context of an obscure band, it’s a limited release (in physical form) acoustic re-recording of their previous-decade debut that strips away the bar-band blast to push these two voices and their ineffable songs to the fore.
On Out in the Storm (No. 7), Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield says everything she needs to say about a relationship in her rearview mirror in 10 songs and not much more than half an hour. Pop music’s greatest thrill might be hearing someone say the exact right thing in the exact right way, hearing someone born in the moment. I’ve listened to this album since its 2017 release perhaps more than any other, and Crutchfield still sounds born anew each time.
Southern California’s No Age and Texas-via-NYC’s Parquet Courts both could have made multiple appearances on this list, but I’m sticking with respective career peaks that came in the same year. Parquet Courts’ Wide Awaaaaake! (No. 35) is a kind of embattled post-punk manifesto, drawing from arty forbears such as Gang of Four and the Minutemen, but deeply in its own political moment. Sample lyric: “Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive/Those who find discomfort in your goals of liberation will be issued no apology/And fuck Tom Brady.” Also: “Get love where you find it/It’s the only fist we have to fight with.”
No Age’s Snares Like a Haircut (No. 19), named for an instrumental track that delivers exactly what the title says, is a more insular, more formal album. Drummer-singer Dean Spunt bashes out tunes with his hands, vocal chords, and heart, and guitarist Randy Randall turns them all into a kind of one-man guitar-skronk symphony. More than any album on this list, I don’t assume anyone reading this will like it. I love it.
Patrick Stickles and his crew of unruly punk-Springsteen Jerseyites Titus Andronicus mix up their mythologies on The Monitor (No. 25), named after the Union Navy ironclad and launched with a pre-presidential quotation from Abraham Lincoln. For Stickles, the recurrent Civil War imagery ties into his own personal advance into and retreat from Southern territory, but he gets off on the era’s intersection of elegant language and righteous anger, and the band evokes the enormity of that historical moment as something of a rebuke to their own generational torpor. Like abolitionist hero William Lloyd Garrison, also quoted, they do not wish to think, speak, or write with moderation. And they will be heard. Loudly.
Consider The Monitor a companion piece of sorts to Southern rock lifers the Drive-By Truckers’ most political record (so far), American Band (No. 26), whose greatest song is a deeply loving, deeply conflicted, fully lucid consideration of home: “Ever South.”
The dream of the Nineties was alive in the 2010s with a roaring comeback — Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love (No. 32) — and a charmingly navel-gazing never-left — Yo La Tengo’s Stuff Like That There (No. 21) — from two of that decade’s greatest bands.
I guess I probably can’t wait much longer without admitting Beyonce is not on this list. To me, Lemonade works best as soundtrack to a brilliant long-form music video from a major cultural force. But as a self-contained listening unit — what this is a list of — I find that it’s a (great) singles-and-filler record that drags a little. I prefer the earlier, eponymous Beyonce, and it’s only missing here because 40 records is a short list. But the wilder, freer vocal monument of Rihanna’s Anti (No. 8) is the R&B album of the decade for me.
Runners-up: I thought Frank Ocean’s alienated R&B hit hardest the first time out, on the homemade Nostalgia, Ultra (No. 30). Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer (No. 36) is where her musicality finally catches up with her persona for a full album that’s worthy of its Prince comparisons. And where Beyonce and Rihanna can come across as forbidding goddesses, Elle Varner is more around-the-way girl. Her wildly underrated Perfectly Imperfect (No. 27) is funny, sexy, smart, grounded, conversational and, finally, righteous. Varner’s daydream of domesticity makes reasonable demands: A fridge full of food, “someone to forgive me when I’m so wrong,” “brown-eyed babies and all.”
As a fan of the lucid — “voice, verbiage and beats,” as critic Robert Christgau described it in a Danny Brown review this month — a lot of recent hip-hop has trended in a direction (mumbly and/or druggy) that’s mostly not for me. But the genre still takes nearly a quarter of the list. After Kendrick, my favorite hip-hop album of the decade is The Roots’ How I Got Over (No. 5). If Kanye West’s previous-decade Late Registration was hip-hop’s Songs in the Key of Life, this is hip-hop’s Curtis Mayfield opus. Speaking of Kanye, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (No. 9) is a masterpiece of sorts, a relentlessly self-focused, black-comic and belligerent opus that earns every adjective in its cumbersome title. Its world-view makes me miss “the old Kanye,” but as a piece of music it never quits.
A Tribe Called Quest’s unlikely comeback/Phife Dawg farewell We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service (No. 23) is fierce and beautiful in confronting an uncertain future. I gather Chance the Rapper is now passe? Whatever. All of his records were contenders here, but the blessed blend of hip-hop, soul and gospel of Coloring Book (No. 16) captures his affability and generosity of spirit best. Honorable Mention: Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s Surf, aka Chance the Rapper’s Block Party. Related entry: Room 25 (No. 33) by light-on-her-lips Chance cohort Noname, which just edges unintentional 2018 companion piece Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B. I like all three Run the Jewels records, but R.A.P. Music (No. 40), Killer Mike solo, edges them all.
Is Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording (No. 10) hip-hop? More hip-hop adjacent, but it works better as recorded pop music than any show music I’ve ever heard. It’s also a truly momentous piece of popular art. On the stage, yes, but if you can fully absorb it, also just in audio form.
I slipped my two favorite Memphis records of the decade on the list: Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle (No. 34) and Mark Edgar Stuart’s Blues for Lou (No. 39). Both are personal singer-songwriter albums, but are also marked by true craft. Baker writes with the precision of a good page poet and her voice can break your heart, because it sounds like she’s breaking her own anew on every song. A bass player by trade, Stuart’s Americana moves and he writes about big stuff (and little stuff too) with humor and wisdom. (Memphis honorable mentions: Harlan T. Bobo’s Sucker, Cities Aviv’s Digital Lows and Amy LaVere, both solo and alongside John Paul Keith and Will Sexton.)
Finally a couple strays: Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What? (No. 37) isn’t his final album but will likely be his last testament, evoking previous career peaks (1972’s Paul Simon, 1986’s Graceland) while looking toward the eternal. And Tune-Yards’ whokill (No. 13), the second album from Merrill Garbus and her merry band of studio helpers, evokes such left-field sound savants as Captain Beefheart and Tom Zé while being more accessible than either.
Top 40 Albums of the 2010s
- good kid, m A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar (2012)
- Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend (2013)
- Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett (2015)
- Southeastern – Jason Isbell (2013)
- How I Got Over — The Roots (2010)
- Attica! – Wussy (2014)
- Out in the Storm – Waxahatchee (2017)
- Anti – Rihanna (2016)
- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West (2010)
- Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording (2015)
- Damn. – Kendrick Lamar (2017)
- Funeral Dress II – Wussy (2011)
- Whokill – Tune-yards (2011)
- American Middle Class– Angaleena Presley (2014)
- Contra – Vampire Weekend (2010)
- Coloring Book — Chance the Rapper (2016)
- Golden Hour – Kacey Musgraves (2018)
- The Lonely, the Lonesome and the Gone – Lee Ann Womack (2017)
- Snares Like a Haircut — No Age (2018)
- Interstate Gospel – Pistol Annies (2018)
- Stuff Like That There — Yo La Tengo (2015)
- The Nashville Sound – Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (2017)
- We Got it From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
- The Bird & the Rifle – Lori McKenna (2016)
- The Monitor – Titus Andronicus (2010)
- American Band – The Drive-By Truckers (2016)
- Perfectly Imperfect – Elle Varner (2012)
- 12 Stories – Brandy Clark (2013)
- All American Made – Margo Price (2017)
- Nostalgia, Ultra – Frank Ocean (2011)
- Platinum – Miranda Lambert (2014)
- No Cities to Love – Sleater-Kinney (2015)
- Room 25 – Noname (2018)
- Sprained Ankle – Julien Baker (2015)
- Wide Awaaaaake! – Parquet Courts (2018)
- Dirty Computer — Janelle Monae (2018)
- So Beautiful or So What? — Paul Simon (2011)
- Allo Darlin – Allo Darlin (2012)
- Blues for Lou – Mark Edgar Stuart (2013)
- R.A.P. Music — Killer Mike (2000)