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.

My Favorite Albums of 2019

2019 has been a banner year for music for me. For whatever reason a ton of bands I like released new music this year and while it has been a mixed bag for me I can’t remember a recent year when I had so many solid albums to choose from to get to my Top 10.

More than 30 albums caught my attention in 2019 across a wide array of genres. Alternative rock is always going to be my favorite, but this year it’s pretty obvious that modern soul and R&B have leaped to the forefront. I think we’re smack in the middle of a soul revival, one that probably owes its growth to the likes of Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Adele and others who reinvigorated the genre in the early part of the century. So many soul artists have emerged in their wake, from the more classic soul sounds of Leon Bridges, Michael Kiwanuka, and the late Sharon Jones to blue-eyed soul greats like Hozier, St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Nathaniel Rateliff. This year I added two amazing new soul artists to my rotation that you’ll see in the list below.

This year also brought some disappointments from some artists I love. Sometimes it’s hard to live up to my admiration year after year and record after record, and for a few artists this year began with high expectations and left me feeling…meh. Guster, New Pornographers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Jamie Cullum, Two Door Cinema Club, Coldplay, and Of Monsters and Men released so-so records in 2019, and perhaps most disappointing was the new record from Keane, which broke up a few years back and returned this year with the dull Cause and Effect. I liked these records, but none cracked my Top 10 or even garnered honorable mentions.

Speaking of honorable mentions, here are the albums that I liked in 2019 but didn’t quite make the cut for my Top 10. Alice Merton broke through this year with her debut album Mint, which got a lot of attention for her song No Roots but which is a great listen all the way through. Santa Fe band Beirut is an artist I discovered this year and their release Gallipoli is a sweet mix of pop and horns and indie rock. American Love Call from Durand Jones and the Indications was a suggestion from a friend that proved my point about the neo soul resurgence — this is pure soul goodness that would make Sam Cooke proud. And then there was Lux Prima from the unique combination of Karen O (lead vocalist of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Danger Mouse (super producer Brian Burton who turns everything he touches into gold). Lux Prima defied genre logic — Clash Music described it this way: “whirring, mysterious sounds – reminiscent of sci-fi film scores – are eventually invaded by a chirpy, poignant piano…the worlds of the two creators collide instantly.” This Land from guitar god Gary Clark, Jr. was a sweet mix of Hendrix inspired rock and soul, You’re Stronger Than You Know from James Morrison added to my soul train this year, and then there was Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves from The Ocean Blue which proved the 80s still has legs.

Here now, my 10 favorite albums of the year:

10. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost—Part 1 — Foals. I have to admit I didn’t know much about Oxford, U.K.-based Foals until this year. Then I heard a track on satellite radio and I was interested enough to listen to the whole album. It’s really solid alternative rock, and apparently they have a reputation in the U.K. for great live shows. Check out Exits for a taste.

9. Sound & Fury — Sturgill Simpson. There was no bigger surprise for me this year than this album from country/Americana artist Simpson. I mean, he was the first country artist to make one of my Top 10 lists when A Sailor’s Guide to Earth came out in 2016, but imagine my surprise when he released his next album this year and it was straight up rock and roll. And damn good rock and roll. Dude can shred the guitar. Check out this cut, Sing Along.

8. Kiwanuka — Michael Kiwanuka. Album number three by Michael Kiwanuka did not disappoint. His voice is truly an instrument and his sound is unmistakable. This is a brilliant record that just envelopes you in its soulful softness. It was great to see him blow up a bit by providing Cold Little Heart to the opening segment of HBO’s Big Little Lies. Kick back, relax with a cup of joe or a glass of wine, and let Michael Kiwanuka take you to your happy place. Check out Solid Ground for a sample.

7. I Am Easy To Find — The National. It could be argued that The National is my favorite band of the 21st century, and this year’s release proved once again that this band from Ohio by way of Brooklyn is doing things that other bands simply are not. I Am Easy to Find feels almost like a rock opera and brings new voices to the front to go along with the baritone genius that is Matt Berninger. My favorite track from the record is Rylan, which is arguably my favorite single track of the year. Light Years is also memorable and includes a video starring actress Alicia Vikander. To describe this album as haunting would be fair.

6. Wasteland, Baby! — Hozier. Andrew John Hozier-Byrne broke through the clutter in 2014 with his brilliant debut album that proved soul can come from a white guy from County Wicklow in Ireland. Wasteland, Baby is a memorable sophomore effort that debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. I think he sets himself apart from the slew of neo soul artists breaking out lately because his voice is so powerful and his songwriting is quite memorable. I mean, did you know Take Me to Church is about a same-sex relationship? Anyway, best track off the new record is the first track featuring rock and roll hall of famer Mavis Staples called Nina Cried Power that’s a message about protest songs.

5. Father of the Bride — Vampire Weekend. Sometimes I’m not looking for hard hitting rock or smooth soul, but rather pure pop that makes me nod my head along. Ezra and his college boy friends write solid pop music and this album also benefits from the addition of Danielle Haim on several songs. I’ve always been a fan of their songs, but this album is good from top to bottom. And somehow, out of all the great music I listened to this year, this one got a Grammy nomination for best album. I think it’s very good, especially Harmony Hall and This Life.

4. Black Pumas — Black Pumas. I was sitting on the sofa one day a few months ago reading and listening to Music Choice Adult Alternative on the cable TV. I love this station because I often hear new music and on this particular afternoon I was struck by a song I’d never heard before called Black Moon Rising by a band called Black Pumas. I looked them up and found out this was their debut song and the story of their formation was really unique. Two years ago Austin-based guitarist Adrian Quesada was walking along the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when he heard singer/guitarist Eric Burton busking and was blown away. He told him he was looking for a singer just like him for his new band and not long after Burton moved to Austin and Black Pumas was born. Fast forward to today and Black Pumas have released their self-titled debut album and this month they were nominated for a Grammy for best new artist. It’s a Hollywood story for sure, but truthfully their debut album is so damn good the Grammy nomination is just icing on the cake of what I’m sure is just the start for these guys. Black Pumas is soul and funk with a modern twist and I defy you to listen to their album and not feel compelled to get up and dance. Which is exactly what I did when I saw them a few weeks ago at a tiny club in Phoenix where they set the place on fire. If you listen to only one album on my Top 10 list make it this one.

3. On the Line — Jenny Lewis. The incomparable Jenny Lewis has been a staple on my year-end lists going back to her days with alt-country band Rilo Kiley. Truth be told, I’ve been a fan even longer than that as I remember her fondly from her role in the short-lived but wonderful CBS situation comedy Brooklyn Bridge on which she played teen love interest Katie Monahan. Jenny is a Renaissance woman who infuses country, rock and pop into a sound and look all her own. Her music is smart and funny, and hard to define. She usually gets put in the Americana category or sometimes the alt-country genre but no matter what you call her sound I adore it (and her). I was lucky enough to see her live a few weeks ago at the Van Buren where I was right up front and it was easily one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. On The Line is a fabulous album that any fan of her music will love. If you’re not familiar with her sound and style, check out Rabbit Hole or Wasted Youth from her set on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

2. Let’s Rock — Black Keys. Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have been together as the Black Keys for close to 20 years now and they have never disappointed me. Several of their records have topped my year-end list over the year and you should not be surprised to find at least one of their records from this decade high up on my soon-to-be-posted best of the decade list. Let’s Rock is classic Keys and it very nearly topped my list this year. It is aptly named as it consists of a dozen hard-rocking tracks. I literally love every song on the album, but here’s a couple I think stand out: Go and Tell Me Lies.

And my favorite album of 2019:

Social Cues — Cage the Elephant. I didn’t think much of Cage until 2015 when they released Tell Me I’m Pretty, an album produced by Dan Auerbach that infused their sound with a little taste of the Black Keys. This year they continued that sound with Social Cues and this is the one album I find myself listening to most this year. I think their updated sound is more mature and somehow both raw and polished at the same time. The band finally seems to be getting the attention it deserves, and while the Grammy selection committee still has no clue where to put them (this album was nominated for Best Rock Album this year when it should have been in the alternative category) it’s nice to see them get a nomination. Take a listen to Ready to Let Go or Night Running (with Beck on vocals) for a taste of this great record.