My initial pitch for my radio show at WYXR was called “Postwar Pop,” and conceit was that each week I was going to play music from a different year, 1945-2000. But they gave me too much time to think between giving me a show and the station’s launch and once I started thinking of one-off ideas for shows those ideas piled up to the point that I switched to the “Sing All Kinds,” weekly theme format. But I think I’m going to weave the original notion in, with one “time travel” show each month.
This week was the first one, jumping back 40 years. I did forget to move the fader on the first record I played, so this playback missed the first 20 seconds or so of “Take Your Time.”
Next week: “The Your Favorite Music Show,” songs about listening to, well, songs.
Here’s this week’s show:
And here’s this week’s playlist:
“When You Were Mine” — Prince
“Take Your Time (Do It Right)” — The S.O.S. Band
“Upside Down” — Diana Ross
“Open Up” — Chic
“Zulu Nation Throwdown” – Afrika Bambaataa and Cosmic Force
This week’s edition of “Sing All Kinds” on WYXR was inspired by the annual Indie Memphis Film Festival. It was The Movie Show, a hour of songs about cinema.
The show can be streamed (and downloaded) after the fact on the show page. I’m on vacation next week and won’t have a show, but look forward to a set of themes in November that will include time travel, locomotion and something appropriate for Thanksgiving.
This week’s edition of “Sing All Kinds” on WYXR featured me remembering to take off my mask before I talked but also a couple of CD malfunctions. Still, overall I’d grade it an upgrade in execution. To paraphrase David Porter, I’m just trying to make it better each and every week.
The show can be streamed (and downloaded) after the fact on the show page. Next week’s show, in honor of the Indie Memphis Film Festival, will be “The Movie Show.”
Here’s this week’s show:
And here’s this week’s playlist:
“The ABCs of Love” — Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers
It’s not just a very sporadically updated blog. It’s now a radio show. The first edition of my weekly radio show for the new WYXR radio (91.7 FM in Memphis, wyxr.org everywhere) was Thursday afternoon.
It was the first time in more than 20 years I’ve done a show. The muscle memory remained, but if doing a radio show is like riding a bike it might take a couple of weeks to keep it from wobbling. There were a couple of times I started a song without having it’s channel set to go live. I forgot to drop my mask when I talked, which is why I sound muffled. And I was a little distracted on the mike anyway because I was trying to remember all the buttons I needed to press and when. I’m expecting at least 20% fewer flubs next week.
The show — every Thursday at 4 p.m. — will be thematic. The first show attempted to reflect the mood of the moment. Next week will be “The ABCs of Love.” You’ll have to tune in to see what that means. You can listen to the stream of this week’s show at the link below (note: the first song on this stream is the last cut from the previous show).
And here’s this week’s setlist:
The We’re Gonna Make It Show
“Please Don’t Bury Me” — John Prine
“This Year” — Mountain Goats
“Badlands” — Bruce Springsteen
“Buck Up” — Carsie Blanton
“Seems Like a Long Time” — Rod Stewart
“Bon Bon Vie” — T.S. Monk
“Tread Water” — De La Soul
“Ultimate” — Gogol Bordello
“Life in Marvelous Times” — Mos Def
“Hope the High Road” — Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
“Good Fortune” — Todd Snider
“Don’t Ever Change” — Amy Rigby
“Time Tough” — Toots & the Maytals
“Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim” — Fountains of Wayne
One would have thought our coronavirus spring would have yielded more time for this ongoing, intermittent personal project, where I relisten to my entire music collection and catch up on some things I missed along the way.
But with work unabated, parenting demands increased and the existential fatigue felt by all of us lucky enough to continue existing, that has not been the case.
So, some quick notes and then the list:
1970: A new decade.
Decades are arbitrary, but in retrospect, if not at the time, this year has a transitional feel.
The Beatles went caput, with John Lennon immediately releasing what would remain the greatest of the group’s solo offshoots. (1969’s Abbey Road is the true swan song; the recorded earlier but released later Let it Be is a near-miss here and the singles comp Hey Jude not considered.) The Stones took a break amid an historic four-albums-in-five-years peak run and Bob Dylan reemerged in minor form with New Morning.
Meanwhile, the best American bands of the Sixties (Velvet Underground, CCR) released their last great albums (and just last in the Velvets case). Four of the greatest solo artists of the Seventies — Neil Young, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Al Green — opened the decade with major statements and, in the case of Morrison and Newman, perhaps still career peaks.
That Newman record — a personal chart-topper in a year with lots of competition and no clear No. 1 — is quiet and short and weird and mean and perfect.
With Spirit in the Dark, Aretha Franklin followed Isaac Hayes’ lead (via 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul) in the transition from singles-oriented Sixties soul to the more conscious album-making of Seventies R&B, beating Marvin and Sly by a year and Stevie by a couple, though Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis also qualifies here. (Sly’s Greatest Hits, an avalanche of singles released in a tight tumble, makes the know-it-when-you-see-it cut as a compilation that functions as an album.)
Semi-popular music: The Stooges with the best American punk album before “punk” knew its name (and maybe still the best regardless). Delany & Bonnie (times two) and the Tracy Nelson-led Mother Earth with some roots lessons Americana should have better learned. Swamp Dogg with some idiosyncratic soul. The Insect Trust with a musical bohemia that unites Up North and Down South.
12 Songs – Randy Newman
Loaded – The Velvet Underground
Fun House – The Stooges
Plastic Ono Band – John Lennon
Moondance – Van Morrison
After the Gold Rush – Neil Young
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – Derek & the Dominoes
Greatest Hits – Sly & the Family Stone
Spirit in the Dark – Aretha Franklin
Cosmo’s Factory – Creedence Clearwater Revival
To Bonnie From Delaney – Delany and Bonnie
Total Destruction to Your Mind – Swamp Dogg
Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country – Mother Earth
Al Green Gets Next to You – Al Green
Gasoline Alley – Rod Stewart
Part Time Love – Ann Peebles
His Band and Street Choir – Van Morrison
Sex Machine – James Brown
Curtis – Curtis Mayfield
On Tour – Delaney and Bonnie
Hoboken Saturday Night – Insect Trust
New Morning – Bob Dylan
Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround – The Kinks
Struttin’ – The Meters
Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
“Pressure Drop” – Toots & the Maytals
“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” – Sly & the Family Stone
“Don’t Play That Song’ – Aretha Franklin
“Lookin’ Out My Backdoor” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” – James Brown
“Yes We Can” – Lee Dorsey
“Ohio” – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
“Up Around the Bend” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Help Me Make it Through the Night” – Sammi Smith
“Vietnam” – Jimmy Cliff
“Domino” – Van Morrison
“Who’ll Stop the Rain” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – Stevie Wonder
“Band of Gold” – Freda Payne
“ABC” – Jackson Five
“I Can’t Get Next to You” – Al Green
“I’ll Be There” – Jackson Five
“Part Time Love” – Ann Peebles
“Super Bad” – James Brown
“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” – The Delfonics
“Daddy Come and Get Me” – Dolly Parton
“Once More With Feeling” – Jerry Lee Lewis
“Rivers of Babylon’ — The Melodians
“Turn Back the Hands of Time” – Tyrone Davis
“It’s a Shame” – The Spinners
“Shocks of Mighty” – Dave Barker & the Upsetters
“Run Through the Jungle” – Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Stealing in the Name of the Lord” – Paul Kelly
“Instant Karma (We All Shine On)” – John Lennon
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Loretta Lynn
“Cinnamon Girl” – Neil Young
“All Right Now” – Free
“Paranoid” – Black Sabbath
“Patches” – Clarence Carter
“Duppy Conqueror” – Bob Marley & the Wailers
“A Good Year for the Roses” – George Jones
“Wake the Town” – U.Roy
“Give Me Just a Little More Time’ — Chairmen of the Board
“Heaven Help Us All” — Stevie Wonder
“Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe” — Swamp Dogg
Taking a pass at a movies list at the end of these — there’s no “rewatching” project — is always an exercise in realizing how many blind spots I still have. Oh, I still haven’t seen Claire’s Knee or Patton or Little Big Man or … .
But here are some 1970 films I have seen that I think that I like, based on the memories of when I saw them, in rough order of preference, starting with an easy No. 1:
Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson)
Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh)
Husbands (John Cassavetes)
M*A*S*H (Robert Altman)
King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis (Sidney Lumet)
If the music of 1980 had a theme, perhaps it was the expansion of punk as the decade turned.
The Talking Heads looked beyond CBGB, incorporating Afropop influences on Remain in Light (No. 4 album). Gang of Four’s Entertainment! (No. 3 album) weaved Sex Pistols energy into jagged Marxist funk. The (English) Beat’s I Just Can’t Stop It (No. 13 album) was as good as British ska got. And on London Calling (No. 1 album, natch) the Clash invoked Elvis Presley on the cover and laid claim to everything in earshot in the grooves.
In the U.S., the Manhattan-centric punk scene began giving way to a post-punk/indie scene blooming throughout the country, whether across the state lines to Jersey (The Feelies’ No. 7 Crazy Rhythms) or to the opposite coast (X’s No. 16 Los Angeles), both hints at the eruption of more localized indie scenes on the immediate horizon.
In the U.K., a similar broadening was happening in the form of the Raincoats (No. 22 album), Slits (No. 7 single), LiLiPUT (No. 10 single), Psychedelic Furs (No. 23 album), the extant Elvis Costello (No. 25 album), and Joy Division (No. 23 single), three of whom appear on the classic scene compilation Wanna Buy a Bridge? (No. 5 album).
It was also the year that the greatest R&B artist of the 1970s, Stevie Wonder, made arguably his last major album, Hotter Than July (No. 17), and the greatest R&B (for starters) artist of the 1980s, Prince, made his first major album (and third overall), Dirty Mind (No. 2). The latter showed more than a little punk/post-punk influence, showing that these exchanges could work both ways.
It was a year when two giants of blues-based music, pre-recording Memphis/Chicago blues singer Alberta Hunter (No. 15) and New Orleans piano master Professor Longhair (No. 6) made their greatest studio-album testaments, the former made well into her 80s, the latter months before his death.
In was a year that saw one rock institution of the Seventies (Bruce Springsteen, No. 10 album) transitioning his sound into what would be an (at least) equally great decade, and a couple of others (No. 20 Neil Young, No. 24 Rolling Stones), holding on, for a moment, with merely good albums. And it was when another, John Lennon, left us for good but with a wise, warming, unintended final testament (No. 8 album).
The lists …
London Calling – The Clash
Dirty Mind – Prince
Entertainment! – Gang of Four
Remain in Light – Talking Heads
Wanna Buy a Bridge? — Various Artists
Crawfish Fiesta – Professor Longhair
Crazy Rhythms – The Feelies
Double Fantasy – John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Storm Windows – John Prine
The River – Bruce Springsteen
Snockgrass – Michael Hurley
Happy Woman Blues – Lucinda Williams
I Just Can’t Stop It — The English Beat
Real People – Chic
Amtrak Blues – Alberta Hunter
Los Angeles – X
Hotter Than July – Stevie Wonder
Black Market Clash — The Clash
Seconds of Pleasure – Rockpile
Hawks and Doves – Neil Young
Doc at the Radar Station – Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
The Raincoats — The Raincoats
Psychedelic Furs – Psychedelic Furs
Emotional Rescue – Rolling Stones
Get Happy!! – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
“You Shook Me All Night Long” – AC/DC
“Zulu Nation Throwdown” – Afrika Bambaataa/Zulu Nation/Cosmic Force
“London Calling” — The Clash
“Bon Bon Vie” — T.S. Monk
“Upside Down” – Diana Ross
“The Breaks” – Kurtis Blow
“Master Blaster (Jammin’)” — Stevie Wonder
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” — The Slits
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” – George Jones
“How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?” — Brother D. & Collective Effort
“Precious” — The Pretenders
“Die Matrosen”/“Split” – LiLiPUT
“Refugee” — Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
“Call Me” — Blondie
“Brass in Pocket” — The Pretenders
“9 to 5” – Dolly Parton
“She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs” – John Anderson
“Train in Vain” – The Clash
“(Just Like) Starting Over” – John Lennon & Yoko Ono
“He’s So Shy” — The Pointer Sisters
“People Who Died” – Jim Carroll Band
“I’m Coming Out” – Dianna Ross
“Hungry Heart” – Bruce Springsteen
“Celebration” – Kool & the Gang
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division
“Freedom” – Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
“The Tide is High” – Blondie
“Mirror in the Bathroom” – The English Beat
“Going Underground” — The Jam
“Shining Star” – The Manhattans
“Twist and Crawl” – The English Beat
“Hey Nineteen” – Steely Dan
“She’s So Cold” — The Rolling Stone
“Private Idaho” — The B-52s
“Whip It” – Devo
“Bankrobber” – The Clash
“Take Your Time” – SOS Band
“Vicious Rap” – Tanya Winley
“Too Many Creeps” – Bush Tetras
“Love Sensation” – Loletta Holloway
Per usual, these movie lists are more of a guess because I don’t have time to rewatch, an attempt to filter older memories through a current sensibility. I do think that Raging Bull and The Shining are “classic” films that are probably each a little overrated relative to their respective directors’ other best work. I remember being smitten by Sayle’s low-budget college-radicals-reunite film as a teenager, but I haven’t seen it since. (It’s pretty hard to come by.)
This film list is a little different from the Top 10 of my Southeastern Film Critics Association ballot I published about a month ago. That’s partly the result of this list being one of pure favorites, where my SEFCA ballot allows for some strategic voting toward the end of the Top 10. It’s partly the result of having seen a couple of contenders for a second time since then. And it’s partly because any list of favorites is likely to change a little each time you consider it.
In both cases, my four-film top tier remains the same, with only the order changed a little. I love these four films and don’t have particularly strong feelings about order. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women jumps from No. 4 to No. 1 here after a second viewing and first in a theater, during which it knocked me flat. Maybe there’s a little recency bias at play. But I think it’s a genius work of adaptation that arrives as an instant family-film classic.
Like Little Women, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a thrilling feminist period piece, searing where Little Women is warm. These films don’t so much inject a modern sensibility into their respective 18th- and 19th-century settings as make their stories feel very much present-tense.
I think Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie in nearly 25 years. In an expansive, charmed middle sequence that intertwines a day in the life of each of his three protagonists – Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate kicking up her bare feet to watch herself on the big screen, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth reminiscing on the roof and taking a drive, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton getting himself together for the best acting young co-star Trudi’s ever seen in her life – it’s also the best filmmaking of this year or Tarantino’s career.
Parasite is as brilliant and urgent as advertised. It could have easily been my No. 1, and if I’d had time to give it a second viewing, it may well have been.
The Irishman moved into my Top 5 on a second viewing. I feel like it not only earns its run-time, but ultimately needs it. The awkwardness of the film’s de-aging technology – these old actors move like old men even when meant to be younger – lends a poignancy that may or may not be intentional. But the film is framed as a recollection of an old man; you feel the present fragility even in memories of relative youth.
My No. 6 (The Farewell) and No. 8 (American Factory) would make a good double-feature on the complicated relationship between the U.S. and China. The former is deceptively light, but that lightness is a reason I’ve recommended it to so many people of differing tastes.
I didn’t do a music list this year. My listening was too scattered and unsatisfied. Perhaps I’ll “revisit” 2019 somewhere down the line. I do have some brief notes about my year in TV and books at the end.
Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)
Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma)
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
The Farewell (Lulu Wong)
Diane (Kent Jones)
American Factory (Steven Bognar, Julia Reichart)
Ford v. Ferrari (James Mangold)
The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese)
Amazing Grace (Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack)
Uncut Gems (Josh & Benny Safdie)
Peterloo (Mike Leigh)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
Her Smell (Alex Ross-Perry)
The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
Us (Jordan Peele)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller)
Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
Better Than Expected (or Than You Heard): Long Shot, Peanut Butter Falcon, High Flying Bird, High Life, Last Black Man in San Francisco
Ambitious but Flawed (in descending order of success): Dolemite is My Name, Queen & Slim, 1917, Atlantics, John Wick: Chapter 3, Jojo Rabbit, Harriet
Performances Better Than Their Films: Charlize Theron (Bombshell), Florence Pugh (Midsommar), Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart), Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes), Taylor Russell (Waves), Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die)
I’m So Bored With the MCU … But What Can I Do?: Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel.
Duds I Didn’t Avoid: Joker,Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Judy
Ten I Haven’t Seen (Yet): Ad Astra, Apollo 11, Ash is Purest White, A Hidden Life, Dark Waters, Honeyland, The Lighthouse, Pain & Glory, Synonyms, Transit.
Best Old Movie Seen for the First Time This Year: The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952)
Television I Loved Without Hesitation: Fleabag, Unbelievable, Mindhunter
Television I Watched With Appreciation:Watchmen, The Deuce, True Detective, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Killing Eve, Glow
Television I Watched Out of Perceived Obligation:Deadwood, El Camino, Game of Thrones, Bluff City Law
Best Novels I Read For the First Time This Year:Sula — Toni Morrison (1973) and The Dog of the South — Charles Portis (1979).
Best Non-Fiction I Read For the First Time This Year:The White Album — Joan Didion (1979) and Is It Still Good To Ya?: 50 Years of Music Criticism — Robert Christgau (2019)
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)