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.
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”
In the years since I published Just In Time For Thursday, a fall/holiday/anytime vegetarian^ main course inspired by a Sweet Tomatoes pasta dish, it’s evolved quite a bit. Pasta is out (though you could still add it), chick peas are in, and whole spices are added at the start of the sauté, Indian-style.
^ Vegan, with the cheese garnish omitted
My normal batch is a double, in a giant 14″ skillet – 8-10 servings – but I’ve put measurements for normal humans below.
I love barleywine or any brown ale with strong hop characteristics and a good ABV kick as a pairing. The dish is quite sweet for a main; many regular browns don’t provide enough contrast. Stouts and porters can also work well, again if they’re not overly malty.
In a large skillet or shallow pan, sauté in olive oil over medium heat until browned:
1/2 onion, diced
4-6 clove garlic, peeled, smashed, and diced
Crushed red pepper to taste (1-2 tsp?)
Salt to taste
Add and sauté until just cooked through:
1-2 sweet potatoes, diced
Add and sauté until liquid is mostly absorbed/evaporated and apples are slightly softened:
2 cans chick peas, drained (or about 1 1/2 C dry chick peas, cooked ahead of time however you like)
A couple months ago – September, after the h&s release and shows? – I impulse-bought a Korg Monotribe, which I’d always thought looked fun. The Monotribe is an analog synth, drum machine, and sequencer. It sounds kind of like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou soundtrack (the Mothersbaugh pieces) in a box, but weirder and angrier if you want it to be.
It arrived, and little jams immediately started pouring out. Designer Tatsuya Takahashi and the Korg team did incredible work on this project, incorporating a wide variety of cool sounds into a simple interface. The 1-shot LFO, per-part Active Step sequencer, Flux mode for the synth sequencer, and sequenceable VCO gate time, drum roll, and VCO volume are particularly brilliant.
By necessity it has limitations – the drum sounds are fixed, the VCO can’t be turned off to play the filter or external input, the VCA is clicky, and all sounds get mixed down to mono – but the Monotribe’s PCB has some test points that open up possibilities for addressing most of these limits.
I read a bunch of message board threads, made a list, tested things, made a hardware plan, drilled the case, fixed some issues with the hardware plan, soldered, re-soldered, and did a couple more days’ worth of troubleshooting than I expected, but here’s what I’ve come up with.
Several of the mods came directly from the massive thread on Muffwiggler, including:
VCO mute (allows for playing the noise, resonant filter, and/or external audio input on their own without the VCO)
VCA slew (the Monotribe’s VCA is notoriously clicky. This is an on-off-on toggle with two levels of click suppression. Internally, I also replaced the one-turn VCA biasing trimpot with a 10-turn trimmer and re-biased the VCA)
Bass drum / Rhythm mix / Hi-hat direct outs (the Rhythm mix out becomes a snare out when all three are used)
BD and SD gain controls (higher gain = longer decay)
SD noise and HH decay toggles
Stuff I came up with on my own:
VCF touch controller (lets you play the filter with your fingers. Pressure-sensitive! Can do some fun almost-formant sounds)
Giant arcade button to mute the drums while held down
Put the SD noise and HH decay capacitors on a IC socket in the battery compartment so they can be any value, instead of hard-wiring in two decay lengths. Using small value resistors instead of caps can turn the SD into a tom sound and mute the HH
This should be great for little jams around the house, taking on the road, and as the heart of a pretty versatile mini rig with a few guitar pedals or other small boxes for collaborations or performances.
Waveshaper Media makes documentaries about electronic music and puts incredible, bite-sized versions of its interviews on YouTube. I’ve been making my way through their archive, and here are some highlights.
I finally had to buy an external hard drive to house my music library. (I’d replaced the old Mac Mini’s internal one 5+ years ago.) Below is my current daily listening rig.
Intel Core 2 Duo Mac Mini (circa 2007) 1 TB WD Elements external HD OS X 10.5.8 iTunes 10.6.3 (<– a version that’s still good!!) 160 GB iPod classic (<– best ever!!!!!!!!) Library: 35,000 items; 100 days of music end-to-end
The iPod will die some day – it’s already been through a few total fritz-outs and and full re-syncs – but that’s survivable. (This will probably be the event that prompts me to enter the smartphone era.) I’m not sure I can go on living without iTunes 10 and my library, though. I probably need to investigate some kind of solid state drive machine that will boot Leopard.
Or maybe there’s library management software on Linux that could replace iTunes.
The other week as I read the liner notes for Fountains of Wayne’s Out-of-State Plates while importing it to iTunes (yeah, still do that) I realized the 20th anniversary of their album Utopia Parkway had come and gone this past April, and I hadn’t seen anyone mention it.
Below is a lightly edited version of the email conversation Cory and I had about it.