The 200 Best Albums of the 2010s

Music and time are inextricable. At its essence, a record is just a document of the sound happening at a particular time in a particular place. Records freeze moments in time and allow us to replay them hours, days, years, and decades later. Certain classic songs are considered “timeless”, by all means a compliment, but a great record often comes with a timestamp. Try to separate “What’s Going On” from the early 1970s and it’s stripped of much of its weight. Record an album that sounds just like “Nevermind” three or four years later and the sound of a revolution becomes homage at best, ripoff at worst.

The story of the 2010s, as told through American politics, is a tale of two halves. The first was marked by hope and change, at least in campaign speak, but the spoils of economic recovery were consolidated in the hands of the few as corporate greed left millions in poverty even as GDP soared. Racism and bigotry of all stripes lurked under the surface as media pitted distant tribes against one another by developing and propagating separate truths. The second half of the decade brought all the ugliness to the surface, the president and his flock espousing and endorsing anything hateful and divisive.

This split is apparent in the decade’s music. Many of the great records from the first half are straightforward rock albums- The National and The Black Keys writing melodies and grooves for the comfort of a suburban living room- but Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West were warning us that the comfort of the suburbs still wasn’t available to all. In the second half, Beyoncé shared her personal horrors and A Tribe Called Quest rose from the dead to warn us of the dangers ahead, while U.S. Girls and Anohni reminded us that it wasn’t all peaches and cream in the Obama era either.

At some point, the frequency of ugly abuses of white male privilege made rock albums cut from a 20th-century mold feel less relevant. The second half of the decade was marked by stellar contributions from women and artists of color telling their stories of oppression (past and present) and empowerment (present and future). Some of the best white music of the last few years was made by progressive country singers emboldened to share messages of acceptance and unity to audiences deep in the clutches of Fox News and the church of white supremacy.

There is no single theme that runs through all 200 of the decade’s best albums- there never is- but as the years passed, the voices that dominated the airwaves grew to disproportionately represent the voices of oppressed communities. There’s a little of everything here, but the artists at the top don’t look like the Beatles and the Stones.

This list doesn’t stay true to the rankings in the book, but it doesn’t veer too far off course either. Albums released in 2018 and 2019 weren’t included in the book, so even if you have the rankings in the book committed to memory, there are 39 new entries here. Let’s get on with it.

200. “Yeezus”, Kanye West, 2013

I hated this one when it came out. Kanye had traded the rich, radio-friendly production of his prior albums for massive ego and ugly truths. Listened twice. Wrote it off.

I gave it another spin a few months ago and realized my initial assessment couldn’t have been much more wrong. Sure, the ego is off-putting, but the content is real. When he says that, even as a millionaire many times over, he feels like a slave to the brands that own his soul, it can come off as hollow, but with the game rigged so deeply against black Americans, racism dripping from every institution, what right do I have to judge? By stating a preference for Kanye’s slick, pop-sampled prior work over the more demanding beats and rhymes of “Yeezus”, I was asking the artist to come to me, rather than meeting him where he was and assessing the merits of his work through the lens of its intended audience. Once I found myself willing to take those steps, I discovered another game-changing masterpiece.

199. “untitled. unmastered”, Kendrick Lamar, 2016

…but Kendrick’s leftovers are even better. We’ll hear from these two guys again.

198. “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?”, Billie Eilish, 2019

New Kanye’s influence can be heard on Eilish’s delicious debut, whose experiments with bass and industrial sounds make it sound thoroughly modern. Eilish had just turned eight when this decade began; by its end, she’s a pop icon.

197. “Everything’s Fine”, Jean Grae & Quelle Chris, 2018

Lyrically, there may be no better record of the social degradation America experienced in the 2010s than “Everything’s Fine”, the rare album that laments the horrific nation we’ve become without injecting the occasional sign of hope.

196. “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”, Margo Price, 2016

Things weren’t all roses for midwestern white folks in the 2010s either. Price brings the struggles of rural America to life with great clarity on her debut, one of five country albums on this list.

195. “Lost in a Dream”, The War On Drugs, 2014

Adding synths and ambient touches to a ’70s rock foundation won The War On Drugs much acclaim. If I could stay engaged for the full hour, this might be 100 spots higher.

194. “Undun”, The Roots, 2011

One of the era’s great hip-hop groups takes a stab at a rock opera and delivers a document lush with strings and heavy with grief.

193. “Salad Days”, Mac DeMarco, 2014
Canada’s answer to Kurt Vile seems content to stay in his room for the day, wearing the jeans he slept in and twirling slacker tunes on his guitar.

192. “It’s Album Time”, Todd Terje, 2014

Few artists have the depth of talents to recreate Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”. This album hints that Terje might be one of the few.

191. “After”, Lady Lamb, 2015

The only artist from Maine on the list, Aly Spaltro delivers a mammoth sophomore album, each of its 12 tracks dense with layers of live and synthetic instruments, stops and starts, and keep-you-on-your-toes theatrics.

190. “Silences”, Adia Victoria, 2019

I’ve heard this referred to as a blues-rock album, and I suppose that’s not wrong, but there’s a sultry R&B element and a healthy chunk of indie pop in there too.

189. “Loud City Song”, Julia Holter, 2013

Holter’s sonic experiments deliver just enough hooks to qualify as pop and enough individualism to qualify as art.

188. “Songs of Praise”, Shame, 2018

Heavy and loud, but deliberate in its fury and venom.

187. “Past Life”, Lost in the Trees, 2014

No Lost in the Trees album is a joyride, but there’s a certain cathartic pleasure that comes from Ari Picker’s plaintive wail.

186. “Black Origami”, Jlin, 2017

It’s hard to stay on top of every subgenre, so I can’t compare this to other monsters of footwork, but it’s uniquely compelling, at least among the 1,400-or-so new albums I listened to this decade.

185. “Ten Love Songs”, Susanne Sundfor, 2015

A work of ambition and grandeur far in excess of its humble title.

184. “Anna Calvi”, Anna Calvi, 2011

Calvi’s symphonic brand of goth-pop was fresh in 2011 and doesn’t have many imitators today.

183. “Queen of Denmark”, John Grant, 2010

Grant’s is a comedy act first and foremost, but his soothing voice and genuine knack for rich arrangements couch the jokes in such a sophisticated package that you might mistake him for Harry Nilsson if you’re not listening closely.

182. “Love This Giant”, David Byrne & St. Vincent, 2012

A once-in-a-lifetime collaboration between two artists cut from the same cloth in different generations, this one both delivers a thrilling ride and leaves the listener believing it could have been better.

181. “Heartland”, Owen Pallett, 2010

Pallett’s first album after ditching the Final Fantasy moniker is a string-driven nod to classical music written for a rock audience.

180. “At Least For Now”, Benjamin Clementine, 2015

This British singer’s debut sits squarely outside the range of genres I can identify, but it’s aesthetically pleasing in a challenging way.

179. “Utopia Defeated”, D.D Dumbo, 2014

This one seemed to fly under the radar despite its radio-friendly aesthetic. In 1990, it would have been all over the adult contemporary dial.

178. “No Poison No Paradise”, Black Milk, 2013

It’s ostensibly a hip-hop album, but it’s the jazzy instrumentation that makes it great.

177. “Overgrown”, James Blake, 2013

Of Blake’s four critically-acclaimed works of textural experiment this decade, “Overgrown” is the one most full of substance- the most musical.

176. “Ruins”, Grouper, 2014

A piano and a distant voice; a trip to a serene pond deep in the woods or a rural porch swing on a fall morning.

175. “Rocket”, (Sandy) Alex G, 2017

These melodies sound distant and somehow fractured, but they’re warm and instantly familiar.

174. “Plastic Beach”, Gorillaz, 2010

This one feels older than the 2010s, both because it came at the end of a run of three great Gorillaz albums and because it features guest spots from older (Snoop Dogg, Mos Def) and olderer (Lou Reed, members of The Fall and The Clash) musicians.

173. “Pony”, Orville Peck, 2019

A mysterious masked man escorts us to the wild west with his Roy-Orbison croon.

172. “Sylvan Esso”, Sylvan Esso, 2014

This might be the most millennial album of the decade. It’s fiercely independent, artistic, and pop-adjacent without sounding like mainstream radio.

171. “TA13OO”, Denzel Curry, 2018

Trap is not my subgenre of choice, but this is either the best album the art form has produced or a record that transcends (sub)genre.

170. “IV”, Badbadnotgood, 2016

A very 2010s jazz album, the band’s lounge act is accented by guest spots from singers, rappers, and musicians of all stripes.

169. “MCII”, Mikal Cronin, 2013

The middle of a run of three self-titled albums, this one best brings Cronin’s Byrds jangle to life.

168. “Weather”, Me’shell Ndegeocello, 2011

The rare bassist-as-bandleader, Ndegeocello surrounds herself with talented players, producers, and songwriters, but it’s her own bass and voice that make “Weather” great.

167. “True Love Cast Out All Evil”, Roky Erickson & Okkervil River, 2010

It’s a miracle this collaboration even happened, given Erickson’s tumultuous biography, let alone that the music is great.

166. “Light Upon the Lake”, Whitney, 2016

If Belle and Sebastian wrote The Allman Brothers’ songs, they might have sounded like this.

165. “Our House on the Hill”, The Babies, 2012

It’s light as air, moves quickly, and leaves you wanting more.

164. “Crushing”, Julia Jacklin, 2019

The best Angel Olsen impression I’ve heard; Jacklin has enough to say to justify veering so close to her primary influence.

163. “My Finest Work Yet”, Andrew Bird, 2019

It’s not his finest work yet, but it’s proof that, more than two decades post-Squirrel Nut Zippers and Bowl of Fire, Bird is still making captivating and relevant music.

162. “Holy Fire”, Foals, 2013

Foals have stuck to their strengths- blending electronics and live instrumentation to create nervous tension- throughout their career. This is the peak of said career.

161. “Up to Anything”, The Goon Sax, 2016

While the Americans and Brits worried about racist immigration policies and entrenched sexism, these Australians sang about home haircuts and wearing a blue shirt to Target.

160. “I Speak Because I Can”, Laura Marling, 2010

This was the beginning of Laura Marling’s prolific and consistent 2010s run and not the last you’ll hear from her on this list.

159. “Swim”, Caribou, 2010

Dan Snaith’s liveliest album is his best released under the Caribou moniker.

158. “Helplessness Blues”, Fleet Foxes, 2011

It takes a few listens to exorcise the specter of the band’s iconic and inimitable debut, but taken on its own merits, the sophomore album is a strong piece of pastoral folk-rock.

157. “Black Hours”, Hamilton Leithauser, 2014

“Heaven” ended an incredible run of strong Walkmen albums in 2012, but former frontman Leithauser wasn’t going to leave fans hanging, dropping a solo debut worthy of the group two years later.

156. “No Cities To Love”, Sleater-Kinney, 2015

The passion, the fury, the noise- it’s almost as if Sleater-Kinney never went away.

155. “Con Todo El Mundo”, Khruangbin, 2018

The best guitar-driven jazz-funk record of the decade. Infectious from start to finish.

154. “Smoke Ring for My Halo”, Kurt Vile, 2011

Mostly anonymous at the beginning of the decade, Vile stands now as a slacker-rock icon. This is the most deliciously defiant of his many deft and often funny guitar jam sessions this decade.

153. “Everybody Works”, Jay Som, 2017

Melina Duterte’s full-length debut is loaded with rich arrangements and warm, inviting music.

152. “Innerspeaker”, Tame Impala, 2010

It didn’t garner the acclaim of the superior “Lonerism” or the inferior “Currents”, but Tame Impala arrived on the scene fully formed with “Innerspeaker”.

151. “Piñata”, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, 2014

There’s a lot of progressive hip-hop on this list, but now and then, a ’90s-style drug hustle record scratches a certain itch.

150. “Your Queen is a Reptile”, Sons of Kemet, 2018

An exuberant jazz album paying tribute to nine women worthy of reverence.

149. “Singing Saw”, Kevin Morby, 2016

At its heart, “Singing Saw” is a folk album, but it’s at its best when the band stretches out and rocks harder.

148. “Any Human Friend”, Marika Hackman, 2019

Hackman uses humor- mostly of the self-deprecating variety- to bring otherwise-tense topics to life. This album doubles down on past themes of intimacy- with friends, lovers, and, particularly on the titillating “Hand Solo”, herself.

147. “Human Performance”, Parquet Courts, 2016

Parquet Courts never veer too far from the ’90s-alternative-with-modern-paranoia sound that won them a following, but each successive album seems to ask a little more of the players and sounds a little bigger as a result.

146. “Bend Beyond”, Woods, 2012

Including collaborations, Woods released nine albums between 2009 and 2018. This is the sunniest and most likely to leave you smiling.

145. “Cape Dory”, Tennis, 2011

Yacht rock for a new generation, Tennis makes pleasant melodies to be enjoyed with a poolside cocktail.

144. “You’re Dead”, Flying Lotus, 2014

It’s jazz. It’s hip-hop. It’s textural experimentation. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.

143. “Remind Me Tomorrow”, Sharon Van Etten, 2019

Van Etten and Angel Olsen each released highly anticipated albums in 2019. Each ranks third on this list among the artist’s respective catalogue, with the prior album in the top 30 and the one before that a few spots ahead of the new one.

142. “Flower Boy”, Tyler, the Creator, 2017

There’s a swagger to Tyler’s baritone that stands in sharp contrast to the vulnerability of his lyrics.

141. “Epic”, Sharon Van Etten, 2010

Its only flaw, perhaps, is that it isn’t epic. Van Etten draws you in with jarringly intimate lyrics and leaves you wanting so much more after seven brilliant tracks.

140. “Heaven”, The Walkmen, 2012

The final Walkmen album followed the formula that made them one of the great rock bands of the prior decade.

139. “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”, Sturgill Simpson, 2014

Simpson has since crossed over and maybe even left country behind, but his last unabashed country album was a massive statement. There’s a note at the end of “The Promise” that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time.

138. “Semper Femina”, Laura Marling, 2017

If this generation has a Joni Mitchell, it’s Marling, who dropped five great albums this decade, finishing with perhaps her richest work.

137. “Miss Universe”, Nilufer Yanya, 2019

A fresh voice with a sound not too far removed from radio pop, but different enough to stand out.

136. “Too Bright”, Perfume Genius, 2014

The 2010s represented a revolution in the public perception of LGBT culture. “Too Bright” shines light on the dark and celebrates what light is now shining.

135. “All Mirrors”, Angel Olsen, 2019

Olsen can’t quite match Marling in volume of great albums, but with each successive masterpiece, she’s built a reputation as one of the era’s great songwriters and performers.

134. “Visions”, Grimes, 2012

Claire Boucher’s pop-adjacent electronic experiments sounded revolutionary in 2012. Today, they sound like a blueprint for much of what followed.

133. “Stranger in the Alps”, Phoebe Bridgers, 2017

Bridgers speaks loudly while barely raising her voice above a whisper or her music above 60 beats per minute.

132. “In Conflict”, Owen Pallett, 2014

Pallett’s second straight triumph delivers some of the richest instrumentation of the decade.

131. “Visions of a Life”, Wolf Alice, 2017

This one combines ’70s punk attitude, ’80s synths, and ’90s atmospheric production.

130. “Two Hands”, Big Thief, 2019

This album is a study in whether the strength of one song can actually be a liability to the album that houses it. “Not” is certainly the most perfect song released this year, probably the best this decade, and possibly the high mark for this young century. Knowing it’s coming affects the way the listener hears everything before and after it. I can’t hear the opening chords of “Shoulders” without tightening up a bit in anticipation of the experience due three minutes later. Once “Not” is over, it’s hard to process anything without wishing I were still in the grasp of that song’s brilliance.

129. “Cuz I Love You”, Lizzo, 2019

If a listen to “Cuz I Love You” doesn’t fill you with joy, energy, and empowerment, I don’t think I want to know you.

128. “Case/Lang/Viers”, 2016

Neko Case, kd Lang, and Laura Viers coalesce beautifully on the rare collaboration album that sounds better than most of the individual artists’ solo work.

127. “Process”, Sampha, 2017

A heartbreaking document of grief, driven by a piano and a singer likely to make quite a mark on R&B in the 2020s.

126. “The Hex”, Richard Swift, 2018

The fingerprints of the ’60s- from Love to the Supremes- are all over this one, but its greatest attribute may be its mimicry of Grizzly Bear.

125. “Cocoa Sugar”, Young Fathers, 2018

The third full-length from this hip-hop group is one is every bit as delicious as it sounds.

124. “Before Today”, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, 2010

The modern king of weird draws listeners into his madness with more hooks on “Before Today” than on most of his other work.

123. “Historian”, Lucy Dacus, 2018

Opener “Night Shift” alone is worth the price of admission, but Dacus’s confessional songwriting and occasional bursts of guitar complete the album.

122. “Yuck”, Yuck, 2011

The most enjoyable piece of ’90s nostalgia created this decade.

121. “Room 25”, Noname, 2018

A master storyteller, Noname blows through 11 deft raps in 35 minutes, leaving listeners craving her next release.

120. “Like Clockwork”, Queens of the Stone Age, 2013

So many critics and publications compiling their decade-end lists seem to forget that QOTSA put out two albums this decade, at least one of which was as good as their more acclaimed work from a decade earlier.

119. “Brill Bruisers”, The New Pornographers, 2014

By this time, The New Pornographers were the undisputed champions of power pop. This one doesn’t tread much new ground, but it sounds as great as their earlier work.

118. “Legacy! Legacy!”, Jamila Woods, 2019

Woods is emerging as one of the great songwriters and performers in R&B, her grand ambitions fully justified on her second album.

117. “A Church That Fits Our Needs”, Lost in the Trees, 2012

A heartbreaking meditation on this loss of frontman Ari Picker’s mother, this one’s worthy of a symphony hall.

116. “Primrose Green”, Ryley Walker, 2015

To call this Van Morrison for the 21st century would be reductive, but neither altogether inaccurate nor insulting.

115. “Architect”, C Duncan, 2015

An enrapturing dreamscape, slightly more jagged than Beach House, but softer than M83.

114. “Blunderbuss”, Jack White, 2012

As a songwriter, a musician, and a producer, Jack White has left an indelible mark on the industry over the past two plus decades. He was still going strong in the 2010s.

113. “Cerulean Salt”, Waxahatchee, 2013

This list almost certainly sells Waxahatchee short, but her output is so consistently strong that it’s hard for a single record to stand out.

112. “Big Fish Theory”, Vince Staples, 2017

The production is as creative and fresh as the lyrics are insightful and incisive.

111. “The Underside of Power”, Algiers, 2017

A relentless sonic assault on society’s ills.

110. “Old”, Danny Brown, 2013

Throughout Danny Brown’s career, he’s cycled through different voices, styles, and balances between original composition and borrowed themes. The one constant in his music is its ability to entertain with skill and shock value.

109. “Sleeping Through the War”, All Them Witches, 2017

Just an epic display of musical talent. Heavy, but measured.

108. “Shriek”, Wye Oak, 2014

It may lack the driving force of its predecessor, but Wye Oak 2.0 explore new, often softer, textures, and produce another winner.

107. “Burn Your Fire For No Witness”, Angel Olsen, 2014

Olsen’s breakout album is sandwiched between the two highly-anticipated masterpieces that reached a broader audience thanks to “Burn Your Fire’s” greatness.

106. “Painted Shut”, Hop Along, 2015

Frances Quinlan’s voice may be an acquired taste, but it’s a perfect fit for Hop Along’s jagged, sprawling punk-rock.

105. “El Camino”, The Black Keys, 2011

Call it a retread of its predecessor, but The Black Keys are really good at being The Black Keys.

104. “Wolfroy Goes to Town”, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, 2011

Will Oldham is a savant by any name and in any decade. His best 2010s work showcases both his knack for delicate melodies and his down-home country charm.

103. “Purple Mountains”, Purple Mountains, 2019

David Berman left us with one final document of the torture that is seeing the world with such brutal clarity.

102. “Black Messiah”, D’Angelo, 2014

Once a decade, D’Angelo graces us with a glorious record of sexy, funky soul music to keep us warm until the next decade.

101. “Shields”, Grizzly Bear, 2012

Perhaps not the earth-shattering revolution a 2000s Grizzly Bear album tended to be, “Shields” is a fine work of art-rock in its own right.

100. “R.A.P. Music”, Killer Mike, 2012

Consider this Run the Jewels 0, the first collaboration between Mike and producer El-P. It’s lyrically ambitious, deftly rapped, and produced somehow like a throwback and an album from the future at once.

99. “A Moon Shaped Pool”, Radiohead, 2016

The best band in the game release an album of leftovers, sequenced alphabetically. Why? Because they can.

98. “The Idler Wheel…” Fiona Apple, 2012

I left this one out of the book, presumably because I held it up against Apple’s prior work and felt it didn’t measure up. Compared to the field of 2010s art-rock, this is a worthy competitor, starting and closing with cinematic epics that would be classics in any era.

97. “Bloom”, Beach House, 2012

Beach House don’t veer far from the formula that drove their 2010 breakout, and they deliver another captivating soundscape.

96. “Space is Only Noise”, Nicoals Jaar, 2011

Forty-five minutes of samples. No genre; no boundaries.

95. “Heal”, Strand of Oaks”, 2014

A rock album heavily influenced by the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, this one feels delightfully out of place in the ’10s.

94. “Be the Cowboy”, Mitski, 2018

Few songwriters, if any, portray the second half of the 2010s as acutely- or as hauntingly- as Mitski.

93. “New Bermuda”, Deafheaven, 2015

Deafheaven are one of just two artists to land three different albums in my top 100. Even the weakest of the three is a stunning feast for the ears.

92. “Adore Life”, Savages, 2016

Siouxsie and the Banshees meet Sleater-Kinney and there are no more rules.

91. “Surf”, Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment

Chance the Rapper’s best album this decade is the one full of exuberant brass and unadulterated joy.

90. “With Light and Love”, Woods, 2014

A prolific and consistent soft rock band, Woods peaked with this release, especially its divine first half.

89. “Lousy With Sylvianbriar”, Of Montreal, 2013

Only Kevin Barnes can sing such densely esoteric lyrics over such an otherwise-radio-friendly pop record and keep selling records for twenty years.

88. “A Creature I Do Not Know”, Laura Marling, 2011

Here she is again with her liveliest- and best- album yet.

87. “Future Me Hates Me”, The Beths, 2018

Throwback punk-pop like this rarely gets noticed by critics, but in terms of pure enjoyment, there weren’t many records this good released in the past decade.

86. “Bon Iver, Bon Iver”, Bon Iver, 2011

Rarely does a sophomore album feel as doomed by its predecessor as this one did, but Justin Vernon was able to strike a balance between the pastoral feel of the debut and a desire to expand his musical palette.

85. “Run the Jewels 2”, Run the Jewels, 2014

The most essential rap duo of the post-OutKast era, Killer Mike and El-P trade some of that group’s playfulness for intensity.

84. “Random Access Memories”, Daft Punk, 2013

Ironically, or perhaps predictably, it’s the album made by the faceless robots that seems most dated six years after its release, but great albums often come with a timestamp, and this one justified its ubiquity in 2013.

83. “Psychodrama”, Dave, 2019

This is not the Dave you listened to with your bros and your Natty Ice in the ’90s. British rapper David Omoregie tackles domestic abuse, racial injustice, and criminal “justice” in his epic debut.

82. “American Dream”, LCD Soundsystem, 2017

James Murphy is the voice of the urban millennial, a demographic that may not have known how much they needed a comeback album from LCD Soundsystem in 2017. As always, they delivered.

81. “Blackstar”, David Bowie, 2016

Bowie left us with one more exotic, unique, thoroughly unexpected work.

80. “Malibu”, Anderson .Paak, 2016

The second in a series that’s so far taken Paak up the coast from Venice to Ventura, this is the hip-hop album Stevie Wonder would have made.

79. “Foil Deer”, Speedy Ortiz, 2015

Nineties alternative with sharper angles.

78. “Guppy”, Charly Bliss, 2017

Just an impossibly enjoyable pop-punk record.

77. “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic”, Foxygen, 2013

The ’60s are largely out of fashion in today’s music, but The Byrds and Bob Dylan show up all over Foxygen’s best release.

76. “Infinite Worlds”, Vagabon, 2017

So many acclaimed albums pour an artist’s ambitions all over the canvass, sacrificing tightness and consistency for grandeur and completeness. I have a soft spot for albums like “Infinite Worlds” that run less than half an hour and strive for note-by-note perfection.

75. “Ecailles de Lune”, Alcest, 2010

The French dream metal act score the highest-rated foreign language album on the list, but not the highest-rated album by a French group.

74. “The Order of Time”, Valerie June, 2017

Appalachian folk with soul to spare.

73. “A Seat at the Table”, Solange, 2016

Solange exposes the trials and tribulations of growing up black in today’s America with grace and clarity.

72. “Halo”, Juana Molina, 2017

I can’t identify a genre- or a single lyric- but the music is enrapturing.

71. “Titanic Rising”, Weyes Blood, 2019

The first half of this one soars like it might never come down. The second half is more contemplative, beautiful in a quieter way.

70. “Ordinary Corrupt Human Love”, Deafheaven, 2018

It’s hard to describe any blackgaze record as “accessible”, but if a Deafheaven album were ever to appeal to a radio listener, this would be the one.

69. “Love and Hate”, Michael Kiwanuka, 2016

This one felt mighty ambitious until its follow-up was released this November. Now the predecessor just sounds silky smooth.

68. “Sunbathing Animal”, Parquet Courts, 2014

It’s reductive to call Parquet Courts a jam band, but they’re at their best when they stretch songs out with instrumental codas.

67. “Puberty 2”, Mitski, 2016

Mitski emerged late in this decade as one of the most adept and incisive voices of her generation. Here’s guessing she shows up on a few best-albums-of-the-2020s lists too.

66. “More Than Any Other Day”, Ought, 2014

Jerky post-punk for restless times.

65. “Art Angels”, Grimes, 2015

It’s more artistic than angelic, but Grimes builds her sound experiments from Madonna’s pop template, creating ear candy out of salt and vinegar.

64. “Sun Structures”, Temples, 2014

Just a baggage-free psychedelic rock album to beautify an hour of your life.

63. “New View”, Eleanor Friedberger, 2016

The queen of weird tries a straightforward pop-rock album and succeeds, in my opinion, beyond anything in the Fiery Furnaces’ catalog.

62. “Isolation”, Kali Uchis, 2018

It’s R&B at its core, but “Isolation” cycles through genres and A-list contributors at a dizzying rate.

61. “Negative Capability”, Marianne Faithfull, 2018

At 71, Faithfull’s always-gravelly voice is full of agony, but also of wisdom and, somewhere deep within, hope. This mix of originals and covers is perfectly rendered to fit that distinctive voice.

60. “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”, Against Me!, 2014

The first Against Me! album recorded after Laura Jane Grace went public about her transition is an unmitigated triumph- a battle cry for the oppressed and a celebration of living one’s truth out loud.

59. “Dogrel”, Fontaines D.C., 2019

These Irish punks blend power and vulnerability over 11 mesmerizing tracks.

58. “Hadestown”, Anais Mitchell, 2010

This rock opera is a hell of a ride, with Ani DiFranco, Justin Vernon, and Greg Brown lending fantastic vocal support.

57. “St. Vincent”, St. Vincent, 2014

What did music sound like in the 2010s? At its best, it sounded like whatever Annie Clark was recording. This is her most daring, but also most consistent, record of the decade.

56. “Dirty Computer”, Janelle Monae, 2018

Three albums into her career, Monae had even more to say, even more A-list collaborators on her side, and the vitriol and grace to make the most fun “we’re all doomed” album yet.

55. “An Awesome Wave”, Alt-J, 2012

Children’s book chants over video game sounds. Awesome indeed.

54. “Attack on Memory”, Cloud Nothings, 2012

A relentless metal album with ’90s flavor.

53. “w h o k i l l”, tUnE-yArDs, 2011

This is the album Captain Beefheart would have made if he wanted to sell out arenas.

52. “Eve”, Rapsody, 2019

Sixteen odes to inspiring women of color, from Maya Angelou and her caged bird to Ibtihaj Muhammad and her liquid swords.

51. “Same Trailer, Different Park”, Kacey Musgraves, 2013

Her songwriting has added depth with subsequent releases, but this was the album that introduced us to the progressive, socially conscious young country singer using her platform for good when America needed it most.

50. “Something More Than Free”, Jason Isbell, 2015

Speaking of progressive country, I’m not sure there was a more beautiful 21 minutes of music recorded this past decade than the first side of “Something More Than Free”.

49. “Kiwanuka”, Michael Kiwanuka, 2019

Not since Marvin Gaye has an R&B singer sounded so world-weary while presiding over such deliciously funky drum-and-bass.

48. “This is Happening”, LCD Soundsystem, 2010

Ten of the top 50 came out in 2010. That may be influenced by the time these records have had to sink in and add the flavor of nostalgia, but next to 2016, I genuinely believe 2010 was the best music year of the decade.

47. “Damn”, Kendrick Lamar, 2017

This guy had a pretty good decade.

46. “Lemonade”, Beyoncé, 2016

As iconic an entry in the pop culture canon as anything released this decade. Beyoncé’s been wronged, she’s getting what’s hers, and she’s taking us all along for the ride.

45. “Modern Vampires of the City”, Vampire Weekend, 2013

Vampire Weekend have been impressively consistent over their four-album career, but “Modern Vampires” is the best balance between ambition and formula.

44. “Break It Yourself”, Andrew Bird, 2012

The greatest active musician’s last proper album before a series of ambient experiments, this one is loaded with as much ear candy as any Andrew Bird album.

43. “Sunbather”, Deafheaven, 2013

I’m not convinced that “Sunbather” is better than the two records that succeeded it, but hearing the juxtaposition of screamed vocals over angelic melodies for the first time is powerful enough to place it ahead of both.

42. “Grey Area”, Little Simz, 2019

Talent alone, whether vocal or instrumental, doesn’t make an artist or her music great, but when the writing serves to build the case that the artist might be the best in the game, as “Grey Area” does for Little Simz’s case, the listener is in for a rare treat.

41. “Lonerism”, Tame Impala, 2012

This is the album Moby Grape or The 13th Floor Elevators would have made if they had the technology. A psychedelic masterpiece.

40. “How I Got Over”, The Roots, 2010

The second half may not measure up, but the first half of “How I Got Over” is The Roots and a legion of guest stars all at the top of their games, making rap accessible to fans of many genres.

39. “Let Them Eat Chaos”, Kate Tempest, 2016

Much of the horror America was living with in 2016 was felt in equal measure on the other side of the pond. One of Britain’s great poets, Kate Tempest, documented that horror with great clarity and production worthy of the poetry.

38. “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”, A Tribe Called Quest, 2016

It was surprising enough to learn that Tribe was working on a comeback album after Phife Dawg’s death that fans would have gladly settled for a nostalgia piece stuck in 1991. Instead, we got the first major document of The Resistance to the coming Trump presidency.

37. “Boys and Girls”, Alabama Shakes, 2012

A fully-formed debut record from a group straight outta 1971.

36. “You Want it Darker”, Leonard Cohen, 2016

Three albums ranked higher on the list explore the deaths of the musicians’ loved ones. This one contemplates the impending death of the artist himself.

35. “Skeleton Tree”, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, 2016

Cave’s rumination on the death of his teenage son will leave you scarred, but believing in the power of music in the most dire of times.

34. “Strange Mercy”, St. Vincent, 2011

I published a first version of this post that neglected this album. Several listens later, I’m convinced that this is as dynamic and edgy as anything Annie Clark has recorded.

33. “The Epic”, Kamasi Washington, 2015

A great jazz album in the 21st century? It happened, and it’s glorious. And at three hours long, it might be the only traditional jazz album you need to get you through the next decade.

32. “Daytona”, Pusha T, 2018

The antidote to the behemoths ranked above and below it. In barely over 20 minutes, Pusha reminds us he’s still among the greatest emcees while Kanye provides the best production he’s ever had behind him. Of the many bite-sized albums custom fit for the 2018 attention span, this one’s the best.

31. “Have One on Me”, Joanna Newsom, 2010

Three discs of folk-rock and classical harp, this is the only album in my top 200 that’s not available on Spotify. It makes me wonder if I missed anything this good later in the decade.

30. “Brothers”, The Black Keys, 2010

A classic rock album for the 21st century, “Brothers” drips with confidence and power.

29. “Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres”, Matana Roberts, 2011

A celebration of free people of color demands an exploration of slavery. The first chapter in Roberts’ “Coin Coin” series is not an easy listen, but it’s an enormously rewarding amalgamation of jazz, spoken word, and interpretive sonic experimentation.

28. “The King is Dead”, The Decemberists, 2011

Most of the albums on this list broke new ground or blended genres or shined light upon a timely theme. This one’s just a pop-folk album full of earworms that would have been hits in any decade.

27. “Silence Yourself”, Savages, 2013

So much of this decade’s music was fueled by righteous anger, but no one does righteous anger better than Jenny Beth and Savages.

26. “Are We There”, Sharon Van Etten, 2014

Sharon Van Etten may be the best confessional singer-songwriter of this era. This is the best of her many great records this decade.

25. “I Love You, Honeybear”, Father John Misty

The funniest album of the decade is scathing and sweet, often in the same verse.

24. “Carrie and Lowell”, Sufjan Stevens, 2015

The best Sufjan Stevens album since he aborted the fifty states project, this one uses his stunning gift for arrangement to mourn his late parents.

23. “Melodrama”, Lorde, 2017

Perhaps the most radio-friendly pop album on this list, it’s also a deliciously modern take on the breakup album.

22. “Joy As an Act of Resistance”, Idles, 2018

If Black Flag wrote about toxic masculinity instead of TV parties, they might have sounded like this.

21. “Let England Shake”, P.J. Harvey, 2011

Two decades into her illustrious career and a decade after a masterpiece concept album about New York, Harvey turns her sights to her homeland and delivers her most scathing- and most listenable- album yet.

20. “A Crow Looked At Me”, Mount Eerie, 2017

Sufjan’s rumination on death is beautiful in its heartbreak. Phil Elverum’s is stark, stunningly intimate, and breathtakingly honest. It’s hardly music, but it’s certainly art.

19. “Sometimes I Sit and Think; Sometimes I Just Sit”, Courtney Barnett, 2015

She’s astute, she’s hilarious, and she can absolutely shred. A wholly unexpected debut from a budding icon.

18. “Teen Dream”, Beach House, 2010

Dream pop existed before this album, but this will be the standard for the genre for decades to come.

17. “In a Poem Unlimited”, U.S. Girls, 2018

Meg Remy’s silky-smooth blend of traditional rock instrumentation and futuristic synths is perfect from start to finish.

16. “The Suburbs”, Arcade Fire, 2010

The last great album from the best band of the first decade of the 21st century, this one strikes a balance between the weariness of “Funeral” and the bombast of “Neon Bible”.

15. “Schlagenheim”, Black Midi, 2019

This year’s weirdest album brings King Crimson and The Fall back to life decades later, breaking all the rules in a successful effort to discover a new art form.

14. “The ArchAndroid”, Janelle Monae, 2010

The best debut album of the decade is a sprawling, ambitious joyride that dips its toes in just about every genre.

13. “Channel Orange”, Frank Ocean, 2012

The defining statement from a thoroughly modern artist.

12. “High Violet”, The National, 2010

A strong competitor for the title of best band of the 21st century, The National peaked as this decade dawned, penning 11 iconic indie rock songs.

11. “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”, Sturgill Simpson, 2016

Of the handful of artists that convinced me of the merits of country music in the 2010s, this open letter to Simpson’s unborn son blows away the field.

10. “My Woman”, Angel Olsen, 2016

Three straight Angel Olsen classics make the list. The middle one grows her band from a three-piece to a six piece (less than half the size of the outfit that recorded the follow-up), but the focus remains on Olsen’s intimate songwriting and guitar virtuosity.

9. “Teens of Denial”, Car Seat Headrest, 2016

A break from the hell of the political landscape in 2016, Will Toledo instead laments the hell of high school in 2016- or any year.

8. “Halcyon Digest”, Deerhunter, 2010

This album is informed as much by The Everly Brothers and The Shirelles as by My Bloody Valentine and Animal Collective. It sounds like it was written in the ’50s and recorded in the future.

7. “Muchacho”, Phosphorescent, 2013

It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, and a lot of sweet melodies giving way to deft instrumentation.

6. “The Navigator”, Hurray for the Riff Raff, 2017

The Puerto Rican experience in America in 40 glorious minutes.

5. “Norman Fucking Rockwell”, Lana Del Rey, 2019

This year’s best is an instant classic, awash in Southern California glow but darkened by 2019 America.

4. “Civilian”, Wye Oak, 2011

The decade’s best rock album is a study in atmospherics and the limits of a two-person band (there may not be limits in this case), best experienced in a dark room.

3. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, Kanye West, 2010

The first half is peak Kanye- every trick in the book thrown at a handful of pop-rap classics. The second half is the birth of New Kanye, an artist whose brilliance is outshone only by his ego and his ambition.

2. “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Kendrick Lamar, 2015

A staggering opus on race and class in America, exploring racism’s roots, victims, present, and future.

1. “Good Kid, m.A.A.D. City”, Kendrick Lamar, 2012

That’s right. The same guy recorded the two best albums of the decade. That’s 147 minutes of mind-blowing genius, all recorded before the one for which he won a Pulitzer. Where “Butterfly” meanders through topics and styles, “Good Kid” is focused, or at least as focused as Kendrick’s kitchen-sink production approach allows him to be, on Compton and the trials of growing up.

Bricks and Mortar

For those not interested in buying the book on Amazon (though you still can), it’s now available at two stores:

Print: A Bookstore (273 Congress Street, Portland, ME 04101)

Bull Moose (456 Payne Road, Scarborough, ME 04704)

Both have limited stock, so grab one before they’re gone!

Album of the Week: #314 “Tracy Chapman”

#314: “Tracy Chapman”, Tracy Chapman, 1988

A friend recently loaned me a collection of American Folk Music from the 1920s and ’30s. I’ve been slow to embrace it, mostly because the era’s recording technology leaves the sound wanting: voices are reedy, instrumentation sparse. Folk music predates recorded music. It’s been around as long as there’s been strife.

Listening to Tracy Chapman’s 1988 debut, it’s easy to be fooled into believing folk music was invented in 1988.

A cursory understanding of contemporary American history explains the folk revival of the 1960s. Folk singers not only observed, but often influenced the period in America’s centuries-long civil rights movement so productive and well-documented that only its chapter gets capital letters in Civil Rights Movement. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan helped bring others’ suffering to the public consciousness, mobilizing well-off white Americans to care about social justice.

Fifty years later, common lore tells us race relations were pretty great for a while there. Racial equality was written into law. A booming economy must have raised all boats, right? Heck, we even elected a black president. Twice! Only in the era of a President whose entire agenda is based on race and class are we reminded that we have so far to go. It’s easy to forget that, at the tail end of the Reagan years, Americans were as divided by race and class as they had been in the fifties and continue to be today.

Tracy Chapman’s debut could easily have been recorded in 2019 (or in 1929, for that matter). “Across the Lines” is a horrifying accounting of white indifference to black suffering in a post-Civil-Rights-Movement community where neighborhoods are divided along racial lines. “Behind the Wall” is a tale of domestic abuse neglected by police, witnessed by a helpless neighbor and rendered in a chilling a capella. “Why?” is either an introduction to Chapman’s ethos or a summary of the album’s themes, touching on wealth inequity, war, and domestic violence in the space of two minutes.

Folk is defined by messaging, but this is music, not just fodder for protest chants, and the album’s brilliance is as much the result of Chapman’s knack for melody as of her poetry. “Fast Car” and “Baby Can I Hold You” are both love songs colored by the despair of poverty. That may not sound like party fare, but both are earworms, with hooks so powerful that you can’t help but hear the message.

“Tracy Chapman” opens with “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”, a plea for the poor to rise up. This clarion call for a class revolution, while informed by poverty and suffering, is more full of hope than any other point on the record. It closes with “For You”, a love song full of pain, backed only by a sparsely-plucked acoustic guitar and culminating in the whispered lament “I’m no longer the master of my emotions”. The narrator has at last found a personal connection, but has lost something of herself in exchange. This seems to be the central theme of the album. In a world in which resources are scarce, in which one fights for every advantage- every morsel- nothing comes without a cost. Through that lens, whatever costs the poor will pay in rising up, demanding equality, justice, and opportunity, are well worth the investment.

We fight on.

That’s my 314th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #587 “Juju”

#581: “Juju”, Siouxsie and the Banshees, 1981

Nineteen eighty-one was a miserable year for music. The classic rock that defined the prior generation was fading fast, disco had come and gone quickly, and jazz had been quarantined to the fringe. Only seven albums from 1981 landed a spot in my top 1,000, and none made the top 250.

What great music did exist in 1981 depended upon rebellion. The Gun Club mashed up country and punk with palpable disdain for melody. King Crimson delivered a comeback album with spoken-word poetry and African rhythms. This Heat banged on everything in the studio, grunted and wailed, and sold it as music.

Among the most daring albums released in 1981- and certainly among the best- was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Juju”. The band had released three albums prior to this one, building off Black Sabbath’s flirtations with death and Suicide’s terrifying chaos to invent goth punk. While those albums were important- and mostly excellent- I prefer to listen to “Juju” as if it were a debut.

Opener “Spellbound” is as jangly as it is dark. “Halloween” is more campy than legitimately scary. The band create dark soundscapes throughout side A, and Siouxsie Sioux’s something-wicked delivery is iconic, but the stage is set for a pop album with dark edges.

It’s not until the growling bass of “Monitor” kicks in that it becomes clear the Banshees are inventing a genre, not just interpreting an existing one. The rest of the album is a haunted house at 3am with no exits. Demons lurk beneath the surface of “Night Shift”. “Sin in My Heart” builds from a hum to a ring to pounding tour-de-force. Closer “Voodoo Dolly” is an epic freak-out, so detached from the pop-punk at the beginning of the album that letting the beginning of the record play after it ends feels like taking a time machine to a more innocent time when so many of the world’s horrors had yet to be exposed.

In a dark year for music, the great albums seem to shine brighter. In “Juju’s” case, the darkest album casts a glorious pall over an otherwise sterile dawn. Perhaps it took a visit from death to return music to life.

That’s my 587th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #533 “Tanglewood Numbers”

#533: “Tanglewood Numbers”, Silver Jews, 2005

On August 7, 2019, David Berman was found dead of an apparent suicide. In 1984, he was hospitalized for approaching perfection. In between, he released seven mostly wonderful, if never quite perfect, albums.

In an earlier iteration of For the Record, I included lots of album cover artwork- over 1,000 images. As I realized that I might be able to actually sell the book, and that doing so would require that I obtain the rights to all the artwork in the book, I scaled back. I identified a handful of albums that mean something to me personally, found the right places for their cover art in my manuscript, and started making phone calls.

It got ugly fast. It seems that most record labels have been absorbed my massive international conglomerates who require that you listen to six recordings before talking to a person who has no authority to grant any permissions and no direct line to anyone with that authority. Fill out an application, pay way too much money, and wait six weeks to life for a reply. Rinse. Repeat.

One of the albums I wanted to feature was Silver Jews’ “Bright Flight”, which holds the #238 spot. I called Drag City Records and was taken aback when a live person picked up the phone. I told Scott about the book and asked for permission to include the album cover. He said he’d talk to Mr. Berman.

Whoa. I called someone who can “talk to Mr. Berman”. Still, other record company lackeys had told me they’d get back to me, and I hadn’t heard from anyone yet. I didn’t get too excited. Until my phone rang again.

“Mr. Berman likes your book idea and says you have permission to use the artwork.”

I don’t think five people have told me they like my book idea. One person who did was David Berman. And now he’s gone.

Why profile “Tanglewood Numbers” instead of “Bright Flight” or “American Water”, both of which rank higher on the list? Twenty-one years after Mr. Berman was allegedly hospitalized for approaching perfection (that’s the first line on “American Water” opener “Random Rules”), he released perhaps his furthest-from-perfect album. And it’s awesome.

Opener “Punks in the Beerlight” signals a change in sound from prior albums. Berman’s poetry is typically wry, but the music takes you on a faster ride. The rhythm section drives hard. Guitars are layered, rather than strummed. By the time Berman tells you he “always loved you to the max”, the amps are turned up to 11.

“Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed” and “Animal Shapes” are a hootenanny. An often-depressing hootenanny. That’s the imperfect perfection of “Tanglewood Numbers”. The lyrics tread through personal struggles and existential doubts, but the music, at least for the first half, keeps chugging along, hopeful that something better lies on the other side. Carrie Berman’s saccharine backing vocals offset the vinegar in her husband’s drawl. If they’re both smiling through the pain, Carrie’s a bit more convincing.

The tempo slows on side two, but the songwriting peaks. “The Poor, the Fair and the Good” gives Carrie an opportunity to showcase her songwriting prowess. “The Farmer’s Hotel” is a delicious rural murder mystery, maybe the closest thing to an epic Berman ever wrote. The lyrics are delightfully foreboding and teeming with wit: “The old place it was vicious/wicked and pernicious/’please stay clean of that rank abattoir’/though her words alarmed me/I was stuck until morning/and in the end we must be who we are”.

One might define a perfect album as one whose musical tone matches its lyrical tone, making optimal use of the medium and transcending the power of the written word. “Tanglewood Numbers”, well, doesn’t do that. It celebrates the written word and camouflages its depression with rousing Stephen Malkmus guitars. But the Silver Jews never intended to record a perfect album. And none of their wonderfully imperfect documents so perfectly encapsulates the brilliant enigma that was David Berman like “Tanglewood Numbers”.

That’s my 533rd-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #88 “When the Pawn”

#88: “When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes To the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘Fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right”, Fiona Apple, 1999

In 1999, I had a summer job. I had a winter job too. At school, I had a meal plan and loans to defer financial concerns to the next decade plus. At home, I had very few living expenses, so I put most of my earnings into CDs. Had those CDs been certificates of deposit, I might be a wealthy man now. Alas, my investments were in Blur’s lush melancholy, Kula Shaker’s global experimentation, and Ben Folds Five’s nerdy bravado. Interest was accrued in credibility among my music geek friends.

Because of this relative financial windfall, my music collection grew more in 1999 than it ever had, and for the first time, I kept a year-end list of my favorite new albums. When the year began, I never would have guessed that it would end with Fiona Apple’s November release at the top of said list.

I wish I could say Fiona Apple didn’t fit with the artists I listened to in the ’90s because most of her songs were piano-driven or because of her showtunes-inspired flare for the dramatic. Nah. She was different because she’s a girl.

Music by women wasn’t aggressively marketed to me as a teenage boy in upstate New York and I wasn’t progressive enough to seek it out. Sure, I’d seen the “Criminal” video from Apple’s 1996 debut a thousand times on late-night MTV and, years later, broke down and bought a used copy of “Tidal”. But when my friends were caught up in Blur vs. Oasis debates and lamenting The Smashing Pumpkins trading guitars for techno, I wasn’t about to step in with a defense of Tori Amos or Björk and why their music was at least as culturally relevant as that of anyone else in this sentence.

But Fiona was different.

She was cute. And only two years older than me. That mattered in 1999. Of course, so was Natalie Imbruglia, and I wasn’t dropping $14 on her new album.

She wrote her own music and played an instrument. That was essential. I had no time for The Supremes in 1999. Then again, Lucinda Williams wrote her own songs and played a mean guitar, and I wasn’t listening to her in ’99 either.

Fiona spoke to me. Twenty years later, I still haven’t looked up the definitions of derring-do, rigadoon, or desideratum, all of which she drops in “To Your Love”, but I remain mystified by her vocabulary and her willingness to eschew the prosaic language of the pop canon for such esoterica. The way her voice flutters when she sings “and fooooor a little while” on “Fast As You Can” still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

“Tidal” was good: a showcase for a young genius with a piano and an appreciation for classical music and a hint of a subversive side. “When the Pawn” is a monumental step forward. Jon Brion’s production is rich and warm and perfectly suited to Fiona’s ambition.

From the bass-heavy intro of “On the Bound”, it’s clear that Fiona has grown up and is going to take a stab at a more mature statement. By the end of “Limp”, the stunning, third track, it’s clear that she’s succeeded. She’s a woman scorned and she’s not taking any more shit. “Paper Bag” is lounge jazz with a Rodgers and Hammerstein cadence. “Fast As You Can” uses “Criminal” as a starting point, but ratchets up the intensity, highlighting the virtuoso singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, and performer Fiona has become.

Even if the other nine tracks were throwaways, I’d’ve gotten my $14 worth and then some just for “Get Gone”. It starts with piano and voice, as soft and slow as the scene before the first murder in a horror flick. Someone’s lurking, and at the one-minute mark, the payoff: “So put away that meat you’re selling me”. This is the first of several sharpened arrows slung at a disgraced former lover. Each bridge from verse to chorus hits just as hard. The second is instrumental, Apple’s refusal to speak as damning as the scathing verse it replaces. The third time around puts the nail in the accused’s coffin. “Fucking go”.

“When the Pawn” is a work of staggering genius. Fiona Apple can write like Nabokov and play like Rachmaninov. Her music is literate and sophisticated. Also, the best line on the album is “fucking go”.

That’s my 88th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #407 “The Order of Time”

#407: “The Order of Time”, Valerie June, 2017

When I write about The Beatles or Madonna, I can launch right into my reactions to their music, leaving out an introduction to give the reader an understanding of what said music might sound like. When I review an artist with less universal renown, it’s usually easy to start with “this hip-hop classic” or “this lost psychedelic gem” to set the stage. Valerie June’s wonderful “The Order of Time” defies easy categorization, robbing me of that terse lead-in.

Valerie June comes from Tennessee, so she’s a country artist, right? Well, she records in Memphis, not Nashville, so maybe it’s the blues. When I asked my daughter what kind of music she thought we were listening to, she said “dance music”. That would rule out the blues, wouldn’t it? In this album’s closer (and perhaps its best song), June repeatedly reminds us that she’s “Got Soul”. She certainly does, and one might define her as a soul singer, but her nasal, reedy voice makes her an odd fit for that genre as well. I pressed my daughter’s “dance music” answer a little further and she decided it was jazz, which happens to be the first genre listed on the artist’s profile. Most of these tracks contain no brass and no keys, so it’s no traditional jazz album. classifies it as “pop/rock” (a copout barely worth discussing) and folk, though that site introduces Valerie June as “Memphis-based Americana singer”. Let’s use that to start our review.

Valerie June’s “The Order of Time” is a triumph of Memphis-based Americana. What is Americana? Think of your favorite country-blues-soul-jazz-pop-rock album and add a little folk. Also, you can dance to it.

Highlights on “The Order of Time” include… well, all of it. Slow-burning opener “Long Lonely Road” sets the stage for something you’ve never heard before but you direly need to hear again. “Love You Once Made” proves that a voice listeners might quickly chalk up to a liability can be a massive asset with the right songwriting (think Joanna Newsom with more Southern soul). “Shakedown” is Mississippi Fred McDowell for the 21st century. “Astral Plane” is a contemplative folk number that bursts into radio-ready pop song. “Slip Slide On By” is blues rock that would fit on “Sticky Fingers”. And “Got Soul” is a four-minute party celebrating the invention of a new genre.

How did my daughter decide she was listening to jazz while she danced to “Man Done Wrong” on our back porch? “It has words, so it can’t be ballet.”

It’s certainly not ballet.

That’s my 407th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #912 “At Mount Zoomer”

#912: “At Mount Zoomer”, Wolf Parade, 2008

This week, I had my second speaking engagement in promotion of the book, graduating from the library scene to the patio at Maine Beer Company, where I hosted a guessing game. I asked the crowd to give me numbers between 11 and 1,000 (you have to buy the book to get 1-10), and played 30-60 seconds of a song from the album corresponding to that number on my list.

When someone called out #912, I flipped to page 15 and found “At Mount Zoomer” the excellent sophomore effort by Wolf Parade and had to play more than a minute of centerpiece “California Dreamer”. It took some time to build, opening with just an organ and whispered vocals, but by the time the full band kicked in, the patio was rocking.

No one in the audience knew what band we were listening to. The best guess I got was Of Montreal, and it’s true that Wolf Parade hails from Montreal (oddly, Of Montreal formed in Athens, GA), but it came as little surprise to me that there were no Wolf Parade fans in the room. Silences after other song clips (no one knew Prefab Sprout or The Clipse either) made me feel a bit alone as a music nut in a brewery full of regular people out for a beer and some entertainment.

Playing Wolf Parade for this crowd felt entirely different. It made the whole ridiculous project feel justified. Someone asked me for my 912th-favorite album and I gave them the rapture. “California Dreamer” is an epic, a tour de force capable of converting the masses to indie rock. “At Mount Zoomer” isn’t even my favorite Wolf Parade album, but I just told thirty-something people that I like 911 albums more than the balls-out banger I played for them. It sold a couple books.

I don’t know how many people took my advice and went home and listened to Wolf Parade for the first time, but if they did, they heard more than “California Dreamer”. “Call It a Ritual” is as catchy as the album is esoteric. “Fine Young Cannibal” is a smooth, keyboard-driven earworm. Closer “Kissing the Beehive” flaunts the band’s musicianship and the skills of two-songwriter attack Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, showcasing every idiosyncrasy in their oeuvre over 11 minutes.

Not every song on “At Mount Zoomer” is perfect. I like 900 albums more than this one. But the high points fly high enough that I’d recommend it to a fan of any persuasion. I’m humbled to have the chance to introduce people to music like this.

That’s my 912th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #304 “The Midnight Organ Fight”

#304: “The Midnight Organ Fight”, Frightened Rabbit, 2008

In the wake of singer Scott Hutchinson’s recent suicide, his bandmates enlisted the help of a cadre of musicians who happen to be Frightened Rabbit fans to release the tribute album “Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘The Midnight Organ Fight'”. After one listen, I’m not ready to assess the merits of the covers that comprise it, but I dare anyone to listen to “Tiny Changes” without immediately reaching for the album it honors.

A tribute album is a great way to celebrate, interpret, or show affection for an inspiring artist. The musician performing the tribute is pressured to be true to the original while adding enough spin to make it worth the rerecording. The one element of Frightened Rabbit’s music to which devotees can’t possibly do justice is the vulnerability in Hutchinson’s quivering brogue. Whether it’s the longing on “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms”, the anger and sympathy in “Keep Yourself Warm”, the tragedy of “Poke”, or the brief foray into joy that is “Old Old Fashioned”, Hutchinson’s voice is the center of the band’s greatest work.

A listen to “The Midnight Organ Fight” in 2019 is quite a roller coaster. Opener “The Modern Leper” is still the highlight, a breakup song loaded with allusions to illness and death, but somehow uplifting enough to leave the listener begging for more. “Floating in the Forth” is perhaps its antidote, a more direct accounting of the protagonist’s post-suicide desire to walk, fully-clothed, into a river where he’ll float away from his heartbreak. The track is saved by the line “I think I’ll save suicide for another day”. Sadly, though, that day came a decade later, in a manner eerily true to the song that portended it.

To chalk a listen to this album up to an exercise in masochism is to miss the joy it brought, and still brings. The charging outro to “My Backwards Walk” still sounds determined to find hope in heartbreak. “Fast Blood” is as much triumph as trial. And “Head Rolls Off” is both funny and sincere, offering the line that would give name to the tribute album: “and while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth”.

Hutchinson’s changes to Earth may be tiny to the majority of its 7 billion inhabitants. To Frightened Rabbit fans, though, Hutchinson was a poet, a fighter, a role model, and an artist who conspired with fate to bring his greatest gift to the ears of so many people who needed to hear it. “The Midnight Organ Fight” is the most wonderful of the many documents of Hutchinson sharing his gift.

That’s my 304th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #580 “Something More Than Free”

#580: “Something More Than Free”, Jason Isbell, 2015

Jason Isbell is many things: a skilled storyteller, a strong vocalist and guitar player, an advocate for those without a voice, a survivor of addiction, a soldier for progressive values in a conservative minefield… On his best album, “Something More Than Free”, his knack for melody outshines all of these attributes.

The second half of “Something More Than Free” is full of perfectly adequate songs like “Speed Trap Town” and “Hudson Commodore” that lament and celebrate life’s trials and triumphs. The songs are rooted in country but not far from folk in their social consciousness and lyric-first production.

The first half of the record is sublime. Opener “If It Takes a Lifetime” kicks things off with the pep of a recovered alcoholic celebrating a new lease on life, weary of speed bumps past and present, but committed to a brighter future. It’s “24 Frames” and “How to Forget” that really steal the show. Both are showcases of Isbell’s uncanny knack for melody- equally worthy of pop radio and the country canon. They’re earworms, loaded with emotion, from regret to nostalgia to heartbreak to hope.

“Flagship”, “Children of Children”, and “The Life You Chose” are cut from the same cloth- pop songs if there’s room for such introspection in pop, country songs if there’s room for such beauty and depth in country.

Every album in Isbell’s growing catalog shines a light on his ability to tell stories from places personal and provincial. Only “Something More Than Free” supplements that ability with a string of melodies that deliver Isbell’s introspection and elocution in such sweet packages.

That’s my 580th-favorite album.