10 for the 10s: Telling the story of the past decade in 10 albums
By MATT BERRY and NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK old timers
Getting past the horror of time marching on indiscriminately and unceasingly, summing up the decade in 10 albums is difficult. At least it was for me (hi, this is Nick typing), and I know Matt juggled his lineup before putting the laptop down. After initially dragging what I thought was a conservative number of records into a playlist — there were more than 60 — I whittled things down to its present state. My list was constructed on a loose formula, composed thusly:
1. How much did I like this record when I first heard it?
2. How often did I go back to it afterwards?
3. How likely am I to keep listening to this going forward?
The last piece might have had a greater influence than the other two items. There are plenty of albums that I’ve listened to and enjoyed, even loved, that I won’t revisit for one reason or another. Sometimes the moment passes, sometimes the artist crosses a line I wasn’t aware existed until it was crossed, sometimes it’s just as simple as boredom. More often than not, the records listed here are ones we’ve listened to repeatedly and will still return to with regularity. They span the decade fairly well, and together they make up a nice reflection of our respective tastes. I also need to thank Matt in pushing me to take the extra step to actually rank them, from 10 down to 1. But the order’s not as important as their presence.
Finally, this is not intended as a ham-fisted attempt at taste-making or influence. This is just what we liked, and honestly, just what we liked slightly more than a lot of the other music we’ve loved during the past decade. Time keeps moving, and the music marks it well.
10. The Black Keys - Brothers (2010)
How difficult is it to assess The Black Keys of 2010 while knowing that the band would soon become a goliath in the rock “airwaves,” if such a thing still exists? While the band’s two latest albums (2014’s Turn Blue and 2019’s “Let’s Rock”) have the quintessential sound of a successful group playing it safe, the band started the decade with an album that announced their intentions to become the biggest band in rock. And here’s the thing: the reason their gambit worked is that Brothers is a damn good rock record, and it features a stark transition to the band’s earlier work. “Tighten Up” is straight forward yet deliriously catchy single the band needed to propel them to the stardom their chops always indicated was possible. Between kicking off with the T-Rex homage “Everlasting Light” and the modern stadium rock staple “Howlin’ For You”, Brothers features one of the best Side A’s of the century. While the band may have run out of interesting things to say by 2019, one shouldn’t simply ignore an album as solid as Brothers when considering their career output.
9. Dr. Dog - Shame, Shame (2010)
For a period around the turn of the decade, Dr. Dog existed as a sort of San Antonio Spurs of Indie Pop Rock. The Philadelphia group quietly churned out consistent album after consistent album, with jangly guitars and layered harmonies filling out the band’s intensely catchy songwriting. Shame, Shame is the sort of album that sits on your shelf for a couple of years until you throw it on and remember “Hot damn, every song here works.”
8. Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires - Youth Detention (2017)
The best way to describe Lee Bains is “Birmingham native.” This narrative might lead you to incorrect assumptions on what to expect on an album deeply rooted in Bains coming of age in one of the most industrial cities in the Deep South. Bains and his band defy categorization on Youth Detention, achieving the unique combination of “hyperliterate southern classic punk rock, with Springsteen and Craig Finn storytelling and a tinge of socialism.” This tone is set early on “Breaking It Down!,” with noodly guitars bracketing references to Dr. King, Palestine, and I-20, and “Sweet Disorder!,” an explosion of punk riffs that bely the nuanced exhortation to undo the injustices done to his home state by the forces of the American economy.
7. Benjamin Booker - Benjamin Booker (2014)
You will know if Benjamin Booker is for you within approximately six seconds of putting on the album. If fast paced retro guitar riffs and pounding drums do it for you, “Violent Shiver” brings it to you with more to spare. While Booker plays with the fast strumming, garage-inspired style of a 25-year-old, his raspy voice brings soul well beyond his age, particularly on songs like “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” and “Have You Seen My Son.” The presence of the socially conscious Booker that would stand front and center in 2017’s follow up Witness are also present, as songs like “Happy Homes” and “Slow Coming” make blunt statements on race, class and gender. A message is only as good as its vehicle, though, and the frenetic energy of Booker’s debut album proves effective at announcing Booker’s arrival as an artist with something to say, in a way you’ll want to hear him say it.
6. White Reaper - The World's Best American Band (2017)
The World’s Best American Band is the kind of album that almost defies you to spend a lot of words writing about it. White Reaper approaches the album as if Dr. Dog’s overdrive got stuck in the “on” position. It’s playful, it’s catchy, and it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. It’s 32 minutes of gloriously addictive cock rock that you’ll want to restart the moment it’s over.
5. Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)
Sturgill Simpson spent the latter half of this decade trying to upend country music in every way he could. He released an ode to fatherhood that had more R&B songs than country. He recorded himself playing for tips outside the Country Music Awards as the Nashville establishment snake continued to eat its own tail. And, most audaciously, he unleashed a hard rock concept album (and accompanying anime film) that was truly unlike anything we’d heard before. It’s almost as if Simpson is running from what his signature voice indicates that he was put on this earth to do: sing country songs. Calling Metamodern Sounds Simpson’s most traditional album since his debut is technically accurate. It also begins with a song that references Buddhism, reptile aliens made of light, and psychotropic drugs. It features a cover of new wave group When In Rome’s “The Promise.” It is, to use a technical term, weird as hell, but steers into Simpson at his best: singing great country songs with That Voice.
4. Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork (2013)
Josh Homme has been churning out some of the best hard rock of the last 25 years under the guises of Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, and Them Crooked Vultures. Despite this widespread acclaim, “mature” was not exactly the word most would use to describe Homme’s work (editor: insert “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” link here). Recorded in the aftermath of medical issues, depression, and turnover within the band, ...Like Clockwork sees a far more introspective Homme interjecting into the typical Queens output. For every “If I Had a Tail,” Homme at his most primal, there’s an “I Appear Missing”, Homme at his most vulnerable. ...Like Clockwork captures the full potential of the band clicking on cylinders, while also allowing an intimate portrait of the band’s creative force unlike anything he had produced to this point.
3. Japandroids - Celebration Rock (2012)
Listening to Celebration Rock, you might assume that slick production techniques are responsible for the impossibly rich sound created by the Vancouver guitar-and-drums duo. And then you see the band live and it dawns on you: “Oh, wait. They just sound that good and that loud.” Japandroids’ sophomore album is bookended with fireworks and refuses to let up for one second of its 35 minutes across eight songs. Lead single “Younger Us” capture’s the album primary theme of trying to hold onto the carefree days of our youth, as we mature to varying degrees of success.
2. Run the Jewels - RTJ2 (2014)
Assessed in a vacuum, RTJ2 is an incredible achievement by Killer Mike and El-P. Mike provides a sort of mission statement for the band with “Blockbuster Night Pt. 1” as he raps “This Run the Jewels is: murder, mayhem, melodic music” over one of the best beats of the decade. “Love Again” sees the band and guest Gangsta Boo turn tropes about rap’s treatment of women completely on their head. “Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry)” builds to a riotous climax as Mike and El trade killer verse after killer verse.
Remembering that this album came out two months after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., is what makes RTJ2 the miracle album that it is. It’s hard, even in theory, to create a more pissed off and radical song than “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” in which Mike makes a fairly compelling argument for prison riots and waterboarding, all over a beat sampled using the voice of Rage Against the Machine’s Zac de la Rocha. At the other end of the chaos spectrum, songs like “Early” and “Crown” allow RTJ to portray the harrowing experiences of themselves and their community. RTJ2 is the sound of a nation about to explode, and the duo pull absolutely no punches in making you aware of that.
1. Jason Isbell - Southeastern (2013)
More so than maybe any other album of the decade, the story of Southeastern is really the story of one song. Jason Isbell spent his younger years as a guitarist/vocalist for alt country heroes The Drive-By Truckers during the peak of their creative output, before leaving the band in 2007 and spending the next few years in relative mediocrity. Booze and drugs, as Isbell tells it, were a large reason for that mediocrity. It was the relationship with his wife (and bandmate Amanda Shires) that led Isbell to sobriety, and ultimately led to him writing his signature song. “Cover Me Up” is a powerful ode to sobriety, to accepting his vulnerability, to taking his wife to the damn bedroom and coming out until a flood tears the house from its foundations. It’s the absolute perfect way to introduce the new Jason Isbell that appears on the rest of the album.
Southeastern steps its toes to the edge of so many points at which it might have been too much. Isbell fearlessly confronts cancer (“Elephant”) and sexual abuse (“Yvette”), spins a murder ballad about a wayward criminal (“Live Oak”), and tells a probably-not-entirely-fictional account of a drunk getting into a fight and losing his girl (“Songs That She Sang in the Shower”). But at every point where the album might become too dark, Isbell pulls us back with songs like “Super 8,” a honky tonk jam about an awful night in a shitty hotel. With “Relatively Easy,” Isbell closes Southeastern with a pitch perfect bookend. Despite all the bleakness in this song and the rest of the album, the love and strength he has found allows him to exist just a little easier.
10. Rich Robinson - The Ceaseless Sight (2014)
Following the breakup* of the Black Crowes after their 2013 tour, the younger Robinson walked into Applehead Recording in Woodstock, N.Y., to craft his third solo album and walked out with a stunning set that merges all his varied musical paths. There are some solid, riff-heavy rock songs, gentle acoustic material and complex compositions, all held together by the layers of guitars he expertly places on the songs. On top of that, the vocal performance is easily the most confident of his career, finding just the right range to serve the songs, whether it’s the shifting moods of “Down the Road,” the relaxed tone of “I Have a Feeling” or the surprising soaring notes on “I Remember.”
*Note: Until Steve Gorman, Marc Ford and Sven Pipien are involved, the Black Crowes have not reunited.
9. The Dead Weather - Sea of Cowards (2010)
Jack White is a force unto himself, but he’s not infallible. Pair him with some strong personalities, though, and magic happens. That’s the case here where, on the Dead Weather’s second album, he duels with Alison Mosshart to create a driving, howling sound. Add to that Dean Fertita’s guitars and Jack Lawrence’s dark-as-the-night-is-black bass, and you have a proto-blues that rumbles and snarls its way to the finish line. White’s projects outside of the White Stripes are all interesting, but he might be at his best behind the drum kit, laying the foundation for the rest of this band to layer on the groove.
8. Wild Flag - Wild Flag (2011)
Sleater-Kinney’s 2015 comeback No Cities to Love was rightly hailed as an instant-classic and a resounding return of one of the most important bands of its generation. But the seeds for that were planted here when Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss joined forces with Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole for Wild Flag’s only album. The record rocks, blasting forward with “Romance” and barreling through until its penultimate song “Racehorse,” which is nearly seven minutes of building guitar and menacing drums that finally hits paydirt on Brownstein’s cathartic howls of “YOU BET WRONG!” If that wasn’t enough, Timony’s “Black Tiles” brings the record home with no tradeoff on menace and grit. Beyond this list, this record belongs in the pantheon of great single albums by one-off bands.
7. Mark Lanegan Band - Blues Funeral (2012)
Lanegan had perhaps his most productive decade these past 10 years, with eight studio albums between his solo work and collaborations with Duke Garwood and Isobel Campbell, three more EPs and the stunning Has God Seen My Shadow? anthology that surfaced in 2014. On Blues Funeral, seemingly every one of his strengths comes to the forefront. His lyrics here are as haunting and mysterious as ever, merged with a production that keeps one step forward in the digital age with another steeped in the traditional death chronicles of the blues.
6. Gord Downie - Introduce Yerself (2017)
No album on this list was made under greater constraints and with more grace than Downie’s farewell. Facing a terminal diagnosis, Downie took the Tragically Hip on the road for one more swing through their country before settling back down to finish this collection of notes and odes to those in his life, from family to friends to band members. Some of the messages are clear, and on others, the intended targets are not as much. But a successful album can’t just rest on good intentions. Here we have we have 23 warm songs that give tremendous insight into his life, and though their meanings are specific to him, the songs are adaptable to the listener. Listen on “Wolf’s Home,” as he repeats by the end in a voice softer and softer, “all I want is you.” It’s stunning and heartbreaking, all at once.
5. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Wrong Creatures (2018)
Either one of BRMC’s other albums this decade — 2010’s Beat the Devil’s Tattoo or 2013’s Specter at the Feast — could’ve also cracked this list. They’ve been as consistent a band as I’ve followed. But to answer the long layoff after drummer Leah Shapiro’s brain surgery with a record as strong Wrong Creatures defies logic. There’s a menace to this record, beginning with the haunted loops of “DFF” into the churning “Spook” through the closing “All Rise,” that relays a bit of the focus and conviction of the band. Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been trade songs and deliver perhaps the strongest album in their cannon. Together, the three players become a terrifying trio and Wrong Creatures is a stunningly powerful work.
4. Queens of the Stone Age - ... Like Clockwork (2013)
Josh Homme’s floor sits stories above the peaks of so many others working today. No matter who he works with, he has an inherent sense of space and song, cranking out his desert rhythms while bringing out the best from his supporting cast. What pushed ... Like Clockwork above the rest was when he added in a sense of vulnerability, taking that supreme confidence and dialing it back down to detail the creative struggles he suffered in crafting this album. The result was a 10-song masterpiece that somehow stood stories above even his towering catalog, layering grooves and letting them all build to thundering climaxes. And sitting alongside the more introspective moments, like “I Sat By the Ocean” and “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” he and his crew are still able to blow the doors off and rock with “Smooth Sailing” or “My God Is the Sun.” It always felt like there was nothing Homme couldn’t do. This album confirmed that.
3. Ty Segall - Manipulator (2015)
It’s hard not to imagine Segall in some home studio in California, knocking around with sounds and textures until he finds one that works, and turning that into another 10 to 20 tracks for another record. It’s that sense of adventure and ease of use that runs all over Manipulator, which spans from garage to glam. In a little less than an hour, he takes his entire catalog up a level while reinventing the kind of quick, disposable pop that Marc Bolan worked to perfect 40 years earlier. Everything’s rougher and nastier than that here, though, but there’s still a sense of accessibility permeating everything, where he’s singing about connection in “Connection Man” or tearing off one of several blazing solos on “Feel.”
2. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)
The fascination with Radiohead’s approach is endless. Like The King of Limbs and In Rainbows before it, it took months before the depth of this album began to sink in. There are layers to all these songs — the levels of keys and percussion on “Decks Dark,” the strings marching towards doom on “Burn the Witch,” the mixed signals set beneath a samba rhythm on “Present Tense.” All these can slip by without seeming to grab hold at first, but as the album rotates and repeats, on and on, it digs deeper, revealing something new and refreshing on each pass through. To wit: I vividly recall spending one week last summer listening to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” on repeat on my two-mile walks home, breaking down every note with every step closer to my apartment. It was equal parts maddening and thrilling.
Every sound was placed with delicate purpose, every song selected for a specific reason that I keep trying to uncover. How Radiohead can still manage this, this far into its career, is beyond me, and so is the music, I suppose. But I keep listening.
1. Father John Misty - I Love You, Honeybear (2014)
On his second album since ditching his J. Tillman moniker, Father John Misty traces the path of his relationship, from the initial meeting flashing back through the more confusing, less fruitful single years, flying into marriage, feeling trapped in the mundane expectations of domesticity and coming to grips with it all and tying the entire story together on the finale, “I Went to the Store One Day.” Throughout I Love You, Honeybear, he’s devastatingly funny and candid, turning criticisms inward before finally surrendering to everything that brought him to this point. The album is an ode to his wife, but it works just as well for anyone coming of age at this time, navigating all the pitfalls of relationships while struggling to answer all of the “whys?” that appear.
Everything he’s done this decade has been spectacular, and he’s been worthy of all the attention and praise he’s received in that time. Anyone who could straight-faced pull off a couplet of “She blackens pages like a Russian romantic / and gets down more often than a blow-up doll” deserves that and more. With the same wry wit and intensity, he can write a song about being lost in a mall as a child, getting too high in the woods, sitting bored on the couch or detailing how one seemingly routine moment could set his life on its present path. If nothing else, this record should live on well past him, long after the big one hits, all because he went to the store one day.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org