My Favorite Albums of the Decade

As the decade comes to a close and I reflect on the music that served as the soundtrack to the last 10 years of my life, I’m struck by the fact that so much of the music I enjoyed over the past decade are from bands that made their mark mostly in the 21st century. Of course, I still listen to artists from the 20th century and once in a while one of these artists made their way into my rotation with a newer offering, but for the most part the list of favorites from below are from “newer” artists.

I blogged about the common refrain I hear from people my age that “there’s no good music anymore” last summer and offered up a tribute to many of the modern acts that I love — most of which are not surprisingly reflected in the list below. What I can say in all honesty is that the artists that made my favorite list for the past decade are now among my favorite artists, artists that in every way bring me musical joy as much or in some cases even more than the artists I grew up with. I still love listening to the music of my younger years — and do so all the time — but more often than not I queue up the artists below these days.

First, a few honorable mentions from the decade that spanned 2010 to 2019:

  • More Than Just a Dream — Fitz and the Tantrums (2013). Lots of folks like the debut record earlier, but their sophomore album really got me moving.
  • The King is Dead by The Decemberists (2011). Colin Meloy’s vocals plus REM’s Peter Buck on guitar — who could ask for anything more.
  • AM — Arctic Monkeys (2013). Do I Wanna Know? was my ringtone for half the decade.
  • Codes & Keys — Death Cab For Cutie (2011). A solid record from one of my favorite bands.
  • My Head is an Animal — Of Monsters and Men (2012). Breakout debut from Icelandic alt rockers.
  • Hozier — Hozier (2014). The best debut of the decade.
  • Momentum — Jamie Cullum (2013). He really should be much more popular in the U.S., but this Brit can really sing and play piano.

And in order, my favorite albums of the decade:

10. Masseduction – St. Vincent (2017). I’ve always liked Annie Clark, but this album set me on fire for a few months in 2017. It was alternative, soul, and electronic all rolled into one and I couldn’t get enough of it. She made the rounds on the late night shows and combined these incredible songs with a little performance art and I fell in love. Here she is performing my favorite song from the album, Los Ageless, on the Ellen Show.

9. High Violet — The National (2010). Boxer was one of my favorite albums of the first decade of the century, so it was a happy surprise that their follow up was so good. High Violet was a huge international hit right off the bat, and Bloodbuzz Ohio really helped the band blow up. It’s still one of my favorite songs by The National, a band I rate as among the best of the entire century. Still not sure what the hell Bloodbuzz Ohio is about but Matt could sing nursery rhymes and I’d listen and weep.

8. Bankrupt! — Phoenix (2013). French pop band Phoenix seems like an odd fit for me, but their sound really makes me happy and there’s a certain 80s feel to their music that reminds me of my youth. Bankrupt! was the follow up to 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix which launched a bunch of alternative hits. But Bankrupt! shows some maturity in their sound as they weren’t afraid to slow things down a bit on a few tracks. Still, I love the upbeat ones like Trying to Be Cool.

7. Reflektor — Arcade Fire (2013). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this album when it was first released, followed by a very strange 30 minute TV special directed by Spike Jonze and featuring Bono, Michael Cera, Ben Stiller and others. But the more I listened the more it impressed me and by the time I saw them live later in the year I was entranced by this artsy album with Haitian influences and lyrics tied to the 1959 film Black Orpheus (which I actually saw in film class in high school in 1984) and Søren Kierkegaard. Take a look at yourself and you’ll see two sides. Meanwhile, enjoy this video montage directed by Roman Coppola featuring three songs from the album.

6. Babel — Mumford and Sons (2012). I loved the Mumfords debut album but this second record hit it out of the park for me. It took the best of their folksy sound from the first record and added some pop and polish and it truly jumps off the charts. Perhaps they wore out their welcome in the mainstream too quickly with their Appalachian sound and hipster waistcoats, but I love them and Babel for me is their best record. Lover of the Light is a prime example of their unique sound.

5. Lonely Avenue — Ben Folds/Nick Hornby (2010). What do you get when you ask award-winning author Nick Hornby to write song lyrics for the first time in his life and then you put those lyrics to the piano-driven goodness that defines Ben Folds? You get Lonely Avenue, complete with songs about Bristol Palin’s white trash boyfriend, handicapped songwriter Doc Pomus, a guy hacking into his girlfriend’s computer, and an obscure American Poet with a catchy name. I love Ben Folds and Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors. This was always going to be great. As for that obscure poet, here’s a crazy good fan-made video tribute to the song Saskia Hamilton.

4. El Camino by The Black Keys (2011). 2010’s Brothers may have broke the band big, but for my money El Camino is the true gem of the bands work this decade. And what a decade it was by the way, with not just the above two albums but also Turn Blue and Let’s Rock which each scored high on my year-end blog posts. The Keys were at the top of their game when they released El Camino in 2011 with huge hit songs like Lonely Boy and Gold on the Ceiling, but my favorite track — and my favorite Keys song period — is Little Black Submarines which is often compared to a Led Zeppelin song and certainly echoes 70s hard rock and shows off Dan and Patrick’s full range.

3. Broken Bells — Broken Bells (2010). Early in 2010 the unlikely partnership of lead singer James Mercer of The Shins and super-producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) gave us the innovative alternative band Broken Bells. The album garnered a Grammy nomination for best alternative album and several songs including The Ghost Inside and The High Road were ubiquitous on alt radio that year. I saw them in concert in 2010 and Mercer was tremendous live and the backing band (including Burton on keyboards) was studio perfect. I never stopped listening to Broken Bells over the decade and count The Mall & Misery as one of my favorite songs of the decade (this video was shot by a fan at a secret live set in a parking garage at SXSW).

2. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — The Decemberists (2015). I don’t think there’s a better songwriter in modern music than Colin Meloy and this record is all the proof you need. Here Colin laments about how life in America in this decade is a dichotomy of love and hate, beauty and horror. Sandy Hook was on his mind when he wrote the songs, and the album is powerful and lovely. The Decemberists have grown over the past 20 years from folk-forward art music to polished rock music and both the aforementioned The King is Dead from 2011 and this record were perhaps the two best back-to-back offerings of the decade. I loved them both, but What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is simply genius. For a small taste of the highs and lows of this record take a listen to my two favorite tracks, the beautifully melancholy Lake Song to the upbeat, reflective love song that is Make You Better. Damn this is beautiful music.

And my favorite album of the 2010s (and it wasn’t even close):

The Suburbs — Arcade Fire (2010). The music moment of the decade for me took place on Feb. 13, 2011 when Arcade Fire shocked the pop music world by beating out a handful of the world’s biggest artists including Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry, and Lady Antebellum to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and then closed the show with a rousing rendition of Ready to Start. I literally jumped out of my seat when the award was announced, and I don’t think I’ve come down since. Award presenter Barbara Streisand was so dumbfounded she barely got the words out. The Suburbs was unquestionably the soundtrack of the decade for me and I am confident no other album in my collection received more airtime over the past 10 years. It never lets me down. It is my go-to record when I can’t decide what to listen to. It is alternative rock majesty from start to finish. It was only the band’s third studio album but it made a statement that they were a force to be reckoned with in alternative rock. The Butler brothers used their Woodlands, Texas suburban upbringing to write songs that fit the mood of suburban life and the music that influenced them (from Depeche Mode to Neil Young according to Win Butler). It has strings and horns and keyboards and guitars and it speaks softly at times and it rocks out at times. It feels like a rock opera, but it’s really just that each song feeds off the next. In a world where songs are king, it is a complete album. The Suburbs was named the top album of the year by a wide range of review sites from BBC6 to Clash magazine to Q magazine, but I’m not suggesting it was the best album of that year or the 2010s. It was simply my favorite album of the decade.

Len’s Top Albums of 2014

2013 was certainly the “year of the concert” for me. I can’t think of a year, at least not since college, during which I attended more live shows. I didn’t plan it that way, it just seemed like every few weeks there was another concert I couldn’t miss. This year alone I saw Mike Doughty, Billy Joel, Wye Oak, Broken Bells, Arcade Fire, The Black Keys, Fitz & The Tantrums, Foster the People, and the “Retro Futura” tour with Midge Ure, China Crisis, Howard Jones and Thompson Twins. This week I’m seeing Jenny Lewis and Ryan Adams, then Fitz & The Tantrums again before the year closes out. Each concert was great and I’m hard pressed to pick a “best” of the year, but if I have to choose I’ll say Arcade Fire at the Forum in Los Angeles was probably the highlight. Although the Black Keys really rocked the U.S. Airways Center. But man that Broken Bells gig at the Marquee was spectacular. Well, you get the gist.

With so much great live music in my life this year, it’s odd then that I have struggled to come up with 10 favorite albums for 2014. As I flipped through my virtual record collection on Google Play over the past few days only a few records jumped out at me for consideration on my annual favorites list. I scanned a few online “best of” lists and nothing really got my attention either. So, maybe it was just a lousy year for new releases but a great year for touring. That said, I couldn’t come up with 10 so here’s a list of my 9 favorite records of 2014 (and one honorable mention):

  • Stay Gold — First Aid Kit: While I haven’t listened to it enough for it to qualify as one of my favorites of the year, I recently listened to the major label debut of this Swedish sister act and it really struck a chord. They have been called the female Fleet Foxes, and I definitely get that, but they remind me even more of Indigo Girls, whom I consider one of my favorite bands. It’s really hard to believe these young ladies are from Sweden given their sound, but music has no borders. Another favorite Swedish performer of mine is José González and you’d never guess he’s from Scandinavia either. I think maybe Johanna and Klara Söderberg moved to Sweden from Texas, either that or they are reincarnated southern girls. Regardless, they are talented alt-country/folk/rock performers and I plan to listen to Stay Gold a lot more in the coming weeks. Here they are on the YouTube if you’d like to check them out!
  • Caustic Love — Paolo Nutini: Here’s another border bender for you. Nutini is not from Italy despite his Italian-sounding name, but rather he’s Scottish. Frankly I don’t care where he’s from as long as he continues to croon like a Memphis soul man. I’ve been a Nutini fan for a few years now and his new record is more of the same. I will say though that Caustic Love has a little more edge to it than 2009s Sunny Side up or his 2006 breakout record These Streets which features the foot-tapping pop goodness of “New Shoes.” My favorite track off Caustic Love is Let Me Down Easy, which sounds straight out of Motown.
  • Sonic Highways — Foo Fighters: I love me some Foo Fighters when it’s time to rock out but frankly this new album is about much more than that — it’s really musical and has significantly more depth than past Foo efforts. I actually think it might be their best album ever, which is saying a lot because they’ve had a heck of a discography. Dave Grohl is so much more than just a musician, he’s a historian and a music fan as well and that appreciation for his roots shine though in this great record. Something From Nothing is a great example of that depth.
  • Everyday Robots — Damon Albarn: When you think of the British pop wave that took the world by storm in the 1990s the two bands that always stick out are Oasis and Blur. I have to admit I was always a much bigger Gallagher brothers guy, but Blur certainly had some great tunes back in the day. But while Noel and Liam have gone their separate ways after years of fighting and produced albums that pretty much sound like Oasis, Blur front man Damon Albarn took the road less traveled and created the innovative cartoon band Gorillaz. But it wasn’t until 2014 that Albarn set out on his own and the result is the Mercury Prize nominated Everyday Robots. This album is like a beautiful rainy day that you never want to end. Take a listen to Lonely Press Play to get a taste of this delicious sound. Reminds me a bit of David Sylvian.
  • Brill Bruisers — New Pornographers: How can you not love a Canadian super band, especially one with the brilliant Neko Case on vocals. I have no idea what a Brill Bruiser is, but I definitely like the sound of this album. Here they are playing the title track on David Letterman. Awesome.
  • Ryan Adams — Ryan Adams: In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Ryan Adams has been making great alt-country/indie rock music for going on 15 years now and while he hasn’t had the commercial success of the unrelated Bryan Adams this just may be his year. His self-titled 2014 release was just nominated for a Grammy for best rock album and the song Gimme Something Good from said album was nominated for best rock performance. He already has the girl (he’s married to actress Mandy Moore) and maybe now he’ll have some hardware for his trophy shelf as well.
  • Somewhere Under Wonderland — Counting Crows: Say what you want about Counting Crows, they have been pumping out great albums for twenty years and they’re one of the best live acts around as well. I count these crows among my all-time favorite bands so it should be no surprise to see their new album high on my list. If you haven’t listened to Counting Crows in a while this album may be just what you need to be reminded of how great they are. God of Ocean Tides is a great example of the gorgeous sounds of this album.
  • The Voyager — Jenny Lewis: Like Ryan Adams, whom she is touring with right now, Jenny Lewis is well-known to alt-country and indie rock aficionados. And as with Ryan Adams, 2014 has been a breakout year of sorts for the former Rilo Kiley lead singer. The Voyager is making all kinds of “best of” lists and her video for Just One of the Guys has been a viral favorite with its cross-dressing performances by Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart and Brie Larson. I have been a Jenny Lewis fan since she was a child TV star on Brooklyn Bridge! The Voyager is easily her most accessible record since her Rilo Kiley days. Give it a listen! And if you love it, go back and listen to Acid Tongue which was one of my favorite albums of the last decade.
  • After The Disco — Broken Bells: By a razor-thin margin, After the Disco was my second favorite album of 2014. Pretty impressive given this is only the band’s second album and 2010’s self-titled release was one of my favorite albums of that year as well. What do you get when you put together the musical genius that is Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse) and Shins lead singer James Mercer? Pure neo-disco perfection. I was blown away by After the Disco and seeing them live earlier this year cemented this record into the penultimate place on my year-end list. Every song on this album is gorgeous, but my favorite is the title track. I know both Burton and Mercer have other lives, but I sure hope they keep making Broken Bells records together!
  • Turn Blue — The Black Keys: My favorite album of 2014 should come as no surprise to those of you who know me. No album was more anticipated by me this year and no album lived up to the hype any better. I don’t know how Patrick and Dan keep doing it, but they followed up 2011’s brilliant El Camino (my second favorite album of that year) with another gem. Turn Blue is amazing from start to finish and the Grammy voters agree having nominated it for best rock album of 2014. The Keys seem to have unlimited energy and it comes through on this album from the very start. Sure, Fever and Gotta Get Away have been played to death, but the whole record is worth over playing. It’s a tough call, but my favorite track on the record is the first track, Weight of Love. Take a listen to this live version — it just keeps building to a beautiful crescendo. I think the Keys listened to a ton of Led Zeppelin growing up in Akron, Ohio!