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”
Here is the best music we heard in the past year. Most, but not all, of Howie’s picks were released in 2018. Cory will explain his picks below.
Top 14 (in random order)
Condor – Unstoppable Power (2017)
Hiss Golden Messenger – Hallelujah Anyhow (2017)
Judas Priest – Painkiller (1990)
Robyn – Honey
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard
Need to check out:
Low – Double Negative (which almost certainly would have made the main list if I had spent more time with it)
Below will be a sorta goofy list from your main man Cory, on account of we had a baby in late 2017 that was supposed to come out of my wife in February of 2018, so it was an “early surprise family baby.” (Howie was there when it all went down; ask him about the howls!)
That meant I was AWOL for the year-end list in 2017, for the first time… so now I have to be extra WOL this year.
Well anyway, this post is going well so far and it’s just the beginning. Here’s some stuff I got excited about this year (and maybe last year! ):
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.
“Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” is sung to a newborn
“Breakers Roar” comforts a young child
“Keep it Between the Lines” offers advice to a teen
“Sea Stories” finds a father and his young adult child developing a more mature relationship
“In Bloom” (Nirvana cover)
“Brace for Impact (Live a Little”) reminds a thirty-something child that life can be short, and it should be fun
“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
“Oh Sarah” shifts the spotlight to the steady partner whose presence has been felt, but not addressed directly, throughout the record
“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.