The Best Albums We Heard 2010-2019

Honorable mention:
Bully, “Feels Like” (2015)
Bummer, “Holy Terror” (2018)
Hiss Golden Mmessenger, “Hallelujah Anyhow” (2017)
Sleigh Bells, “Treats” (2010).
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)
Weedpecker, “II” (2015)

The Best Artists We Heard 2010-2019

This list represents the best discographies or bodies of work we heard in the past decade. A best albums list will follow. We chose to put artists on one or the other list, so don’t freak out that some of the top artists of the decade aren’t here.

Howie highlighted 19 artists with impeccable bodies of work; Cory went in-depth on his top three.

When I (Howie) sat down to write a few sentences about these artists, I struggled. Many of their records have already been on my best-of-year lists. I thought instead about what it means to create a strong series of works.

If you’re curious about any of these artists, go to your favorite streaming service (Spotify’s free tier is a decent option) and find their top tracks; it’s not like you can go wrong.

If I could earn a spot on a list like this, or a best albums list, I’d choose this one. These are the albums I reach for more often than not. These are the artists I trust to get me through an entire day. Brilliance is undoubtedly brilliant, but when you combine it with craft, and evolution, and call-and-response, you get something more.

These artists are doing what I aspire to do.

Kacey Musgraves – With the advent of streaming, I rarely listen to the radio. It only happens when I’m stuck in a musical rut and need to shake things up.

That’s what happened for me during a morning commute in 2013, when I randomly tuned the FM dial to the local country station just in time to hear the beginning of “Merry Go Round,” Kacey’s single from debut “Same Trailer, Different Park.”

I remember being shocked that something this good was on the radio, and on the pop-country station to (cowboy) boot! With each passing lyric and transition, I kept getting nervous that the other boot would drop, and it would go into a shitty modern faux-nky-tonk bridge… but it never happened, and I was bowled over. I was also late to work, because I had to listen to the full song in my car first.

Once I got to my desk, I Googled the lyrics to find the name of the song, and I listened again immediately. I loved it even more, and gave her whole album a shot, and my heavens, what an absolute gem of a pop-country record. And I don’t mean pop music dressed up like country; I mean actual country music possessing actual choruses a la Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson or whomever else you want to name to sound hip.

Since that time, she’s just gotten better. She’s also been fully accepted and lauded by every type of music fan, a rare feat. “Golden Hour” turned her into Pitchfork’s Twangy Pet AND won her the Grammy for Album of the Year.

This proves how much Pitchfork has changed, but more to the point, it illustrates just how universal Kacey’s music is. She’s managed to speak to every soul in the world! Except for Howie because he does not feel, and because he has a complicated history with chaps and lassos.

Run The Jewels – Everything about this group is an anomaly, and everything about their success makes perfect sense.

I’d heard them referenced plenty of times without paying much attention, as much of the new (even critically praised) hip-hop in 2013 didn’t do it for me. How many times did Pitchfork trick me into listening to Lil’ Wayne before they became The Boy Who Cried “Dope”?

It was actually Howie that finally convinced me. He was visiting and said “Look up the video for ‘Run the Jewels’ (song) right now.” We did, and two things happened. One, I fell in love. Two, I realize that these weren’t new rappers at all. They were two middle-aged rappers with a lot of cred but nothing more than a cult following to that point. I would have said that individually, each had already peaked. But something about them trading verses over El-P’s production is lightening in a bottle.

Seven years and three monstrously powerful albums later (with a fourth dropping any day now), RTJ has established themselves as perhaps the most important “new” hip-hop duo so far this century. It’s heartening to know that such previously underground mainstays still have something new and exciting to say, AND that people were able to get on-board, zero hesitations, with two middle-aged regular-looking MCs who bear zero resemblance to anyone else on the charts. It makes no sense and perfect sense at once.

Surfer Blood – I love pop songwriting, an art that’s a lot more discerning than it gets credit for. You have to do something highly interesting in about three minutes, without overstaying your welcome, being TOO weird, or sounding trite. Really, it’s almost impossible to do with any regularity.

That’s why Surfer Blood is, no-question, my band of the decade. Album after album, they put out grunge-surf rock that recalls weirder and less commercial influences while exhibiting the same level of pop melody and sensibility that made Foo Fighters and Weezer famous. There’s something about power-chords, reverb, vulnerable lyrics, and driving rhythm sections that gets me every time, and no other band has done it better.

They’ve also defied some serious challenges, including original guitarist Thomas Fekete’s untimely death in 2016 from cancer. Few bands survive something like that; of the ones that soldier on, most of them sound watered-down, like they’re going through the motions. Surfer Blood went on to put out one of the more experimental and profound albums of their career with 2017’s “Snowdonia.”

I have no idea what the future holds for Surfer Blood. What I do know is that JP Pitts’ songwriting hasn’t faltered yet, and I feel only joy when I hear their music. For my money, no other band has given us this many records at this level of quality this consistently in recent memory.

The Best Music We Heard In 2019

Honorable mention:
Alessandro Cortini, “Volume Massimo”
Craig Finn, “I Need A New War”
Fennesz, “Agora”
J. Robbins, “Un-Becoming”
remst8, “Droneuary” / “Chrysalism v2”
Selvedge, “Don’t Sweat Infinity”
Sunn O))), “Life Metal”
Torche, “Admission”
Varma Cross, “Varma Cross”
Wilco, “Ode to Joy”
Wild Eye, “Mandalas III – VIII” / “Step Into The Temple”
William Basinski, “On Time Out Of Time”

Contenders we still need to check out:
Bon Iver, “i,i”
Sunn O))), “Pyroclasts”
Solange, “When I Get Home”
Thom Yorke, “Anima”

The Best Music We Heard In 2017

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was released in 2017.

Top 14 (in random order)

Honorable mention:
The War On Drugs “A Deeper Understanding” (2017)
Sufjan Stevens, “Planetarium” (2017)
Spoon, “Hot Thoughts” (2017)
Vokonis, “The Sunken Djinn” (2017)
Pallbearer, “Heartless” (2017)
The New Pornographers, “Whiteout Conditions” (2017)
Hyborian, “Hyborian: Vol. 1” (2017)
HAIM, “Something to Tell You” (2017)
The Afghan Whigs, “In Spades” (2017)
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani, “FRKWYS Vol. 13: Sunergy” (2016)

The Best Music We Heard In 2016

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was also released in 2016.

Top 20 (in random order)

Honorable Mention:
Aesop Rock, “The Impossible Kid” (2016)
Bon Iver, “22, A Million”, “” (2016)
David Bowie, “Blackstar” (2016)
Deftones, “Gore” (2016)
Hammers of Misfortune, “Dead Revolution” (2016)
Lincoln Marshall, “Water” (2016)
Maxwell, “blackSUMMERS’night” (2016)
Operators, “Blue Wave” (2016)
The Powder Room, “Lucky” (2016)

MR|Review – Sturgill Simpson, “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth”

Sturgill Simpson’s appearance on Mark Maron’s WTF podcast this week (listen soon; it will go behind a paywall in a week or two I think) reminded me just how much there is to unpack from his new record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

A Sailor's Guide To Earth

It’s a wonderful left turn of a record, released when fans and critics would have welcomed a Metamodern Sounds pt. II.  Self-produced, it sounds clear, warm, and open, the Dap-Kings’ soulful horns swirling chocolate-and-peanut-butter-like with Simpson’s brand of slacker psychadelic outlaw country.

Sturgill’s been open about A Sailor’s Guide… being a song cycle written for his family, especially his first child who was born just as his career took off.  What he hasn’t said – and there’s a tantalizing hint in the Maron interview about this – is just how deep the concept goes.  I think the album is sequenced chronologically beginning with a father singing a song to his newborn son and continuing as the son grows up, maybe having a child of his own.

  1. “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” is sung to a newborn
  2. “Breakers Roar” comforts a young child
  3. “Keep it Between the Lines” offers advice to a teen
  4. “Sea Stories” finds a father and his young adult child developing a more mature relationship
  5. “In Bloom” (Nirvana cover)
  6. “Brace for Impact (Live a Little”) reminds a thirty-something child that life can be short, and it should be fun
  7. “All Around You” illustrates a deep connection, only able to be seen through long experience, with a child who is now old enough to have felt real pain
  8. “Oh Sarah” shifts the spotlight to the steady partner whose presence has been felt, but not addressed directly, throughout the record
  9. “Call To Arms” – The old man’s got nothing to lose and speaks his mind (not that he hasn’t always), turning from his family outward toward the world

“In Bloom” is the outlier here, thematically and musically.  As it sits in the center of the sequence it strikes me as meaningful, though I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.  It’s, for me, the weak point on the record musically as Simpson drops half of the chord sequence from the verse, rendering the tension of the original toothless.

Maybe changing Nirvana’s rager into a lullaby illustrates a father nostalgic for his younger child while simultaneously recognizing the adult he’s become.  Or maybe I’m reaching.  But the rest of the album makes so much sense – six songs of a child growing up, followed by two turning progressively outward to others – I need a way to understand the intent here.

Simpson can obviously write incisive, vivid lyrics when he wants to.  That this record also features some fairly worn cliches struck me as odd at first, though they’re wearing alright with time.  Sometimes the language of love and family is what’s comfortable and familiar, said a thousand times and no less true for it.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience. MR|Review totals to date:
Must-hear! 2
Recommended 13
Good 10
Fans only 10
Skip this 3
Owww! My ears! 0

The Best Music We Heard In 2015

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was also released in 2015.

Top 12 (in random order) (it would have been 13; Cory tried to list “1989” again!)

Honorable mention
Best Coast, “California Nights” (2015)

Waves x Cloud Nothings, “No Life For Me” (2015)

Selena Gomez, “Revival” (2015)

Beach House, “Depression Cherry” (2015)

A Is Jump, “Weird Nostalgia” (2015)

Blackalicious, “Imani vol. 1” (2015)

Brandon Flowers, “The Desired Effect” (2015)

Carla Morrison, “Amor Supremo” (2015)

Elder, “Lore” (2015)

Failure, “The Heart Is A Monster” (2015)

Halfwit, “II” and “III” (2015)

High on Fire, “Luminiferous” (2015)

Kowloon Walled City, “Grievances” (2015)

Monolord, “Vænir” (2015)

No Cave, “Eyes Brighter Than The Sun” (2015)

Sheer Mag, “II 7″” (2015)

Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love” (2015)

Tame Impala, “Currents” (2015)

Torche, “Restarter” (2015)

Viol, “Deeper Than Sky” (2015)

Descendents, “Milo Goes To College” (1982), “I Don’t Want To Grow Up” (1985), “Enjoy!” (1986)

Joy, “Under The Spell Of” (2014)

Run-D.M.C., “Run-D.M.C.” (1984), “King of Rock” (1985), “Raising Hell” (1986), “Tougher Than Leather” (1988)

Sturgill Simpson, “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” (2014)

Excited to check out:

Leon Bridges

Fuzz

Joanna Newsom

The Best Music We Heard in 2014

Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, was also released in 2014. “I had a sparse year for new music” says Cory. “I wish I could say that I fell in love with more tunes this year. But, I have a deep, deep fondness for the records I did discover this year.”

Top 8 (in random order)

Next 13 (also in random order)

MR|Review – Snowden, Ladyfinger (ne), Palms, Aesop Rock, and Elder

What a beautiful surprise; seven years after Anti-Anti (which I still listen to regularly), Snowden returns in top form on No One In Control, hitting all the marks you might want based on their past work, and subtly expanding on it, too.

Snowden_NoOneInControl

The band’s bread and butter is a backbeat-leaning, dark new-wave dance jam, coupled with stuttering kick/bass rhythms and a droning key or guitar line (see “Hiss,” or “Not Good Enough”). They’re so good at these, they don’t get old. No One In Control also twists and stretches this template successfully, building the title track up slowly over the course of seven minutes that could go on for twice that, integrating a cool, retro synth-stab sound with “The Beat Comes,” or dialing down Snowden’s usual burn to a simmer on “Don’t Really Know Me,” focusing rather than cutting its energy.

What can I say about the perfect “Anemone Arms?” Its simple, pure, eternal-but-counterintuitive theme? The beautifully understated arrangement? I invite you to give yourself over to it, especially if you’re in need of a moment of grace.

Every time I hear this record, I’m grateful Snowden made it.

Ladyfinger-ne--Errant-Forms

I’ve tried for a couple weeks not to be disappointed by Errant Forms, unsuccessfully. But, I love Ladyfinger. Their show at the Riot Room a few months ago, with mostly material from the new record, was great.

In the end, though, “Dark Horse” is the only good song (and it’s really good) that shows any growth from the band. “Blue Oyster” and “He Said She Said,” relegated to the last two tracks of the album, adequately invoke the old Ladyfinger; the rest of the set is toothless and meandering, two words I never expected to use about Ladyfinger’s music. Plus, “Meathead” is simply embarrassing in its unintentional irony. It’s a dumb, reductionist song trying to snark at dumb, reductionist stereotpyes.

My expectation that this album would be something other than what it is is something I’ve been wrestling with and trying to suppress before forming a solid opinion about Errant Forms. One angle on art that I like thinking about is sussing the artists’ intention, and the extent to which they accomplished it. Other than from “Dark Horse,” I haven’t gotten any sense of why Ladyfinger made this record. It feels mostly checked out of its own existence. The guitars are muted and indistinct, and the drums are fussy and tapped. I think my disappointment has more to do with the specific recording, not the band or the songs (since the live set was energetic and a little edgy).  I’d gladly trade my copy of Errant Forms for a bootleg of the Riot Room show.

As a Ladyfinger listener, I needed to know what this album was. It’s good to know, but I hope the next one has some bite.

Palmscover

Palms’ self-titled debut is exactly what you’d expect from the press blurb; a Chino Moreno (Deftones)-fronted Isis side project. Ambient metal, or some such. In spite of that, I like it a lot and have it in heavy rotation, but that doesn’t mean it gets a strong recommendation by MR|Review.

Nothing here will reach up and grab you. Overdriven, heavily delayed arpeggios permutate around Chino’s moans and steady, sometimes angular, rhythms. If you listen closely, you’ll notice details changing from section to section.  Otherwise, it mooshes all together.  Rinse, repeat.  “Patagonia” is my favorite example.

The first half of closer “Antarctic Handshake” indicates a direction forward, should the group ever convene again. It has a straightforward dream-pop feel that, maybe blended 50/50 with the languid space-rock of the rest of Palms (start with the metal section of “Mission Sunset,” guys) and written into complete songs, could be noteworthy on a wider scale than “interesting metal supergroup side project.” I hope Palms makes that record, but in the meantime I’ll dig revisiting this one periodically.

Aesop Rock’s Skelethon is over one year old, but I won’t relax about it until I’ve done everything I can think of to convince you to check it out.

It’s basically a perfectly-executed record, with Aesop Rock rapping over his own intricately-constructed beats; arrangements as tight as German engineering, every ounce of sound aimed squarely at making your head nod *so* *hard,* and it never lets up. I’m jealous, in an inspired way, of how thoroughly Rock executes his singular vision and practically forces his point of view on listeners.

Ahh, words don’t do it justice. You have to bang this once, and then tell me if you don’t feel it.

Elderdeadrootsstirringcover

Elder’s Dead Roots Stirring – is it or is it not metal? – is so inviting and infectious it should spill over from stoner/doom/desert rock silos. If you love this shit like I do, you’re welcome. If you don’t (yet?) but have the slightest interest, here’s a gateway.

Hitting the sweet spot between straight blown-out blooze and alternately broken and augmented psychadelic riffing, Dead Roots Stirring is that kind of heavy that puts a smile on my face. There’s a joy in volume, a release in mutual submission, and egolessness in waves of fuzz.

Twelve-minute guitar jams aren’t for everyone; I get that. Just don’t assume they’re not for you until you’ve listened to a couple good ones.

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience. MR|Review totals to date:
Must-hear! 2
Recommended 13
Good 9
Fans only 10
Skip this 3
Owww! My ears! 0