It’s coming up to the “end of year” list season. You’ll get my top 10 (or so) of 2019 within the next couple of weeks, but I wanted to post something different going into it. At the time of writing, the 2019 list is not complete. The Who’s new record isn’t out yet, after all.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people are taking time to also talk about their favorites from the past decade, since we’re about to roll over into the 20s. I like the idea and am going to do something similar in this post. As anyone who’s been reading this blog over the years knows, I always publish a “top ten records” list. You could just go back and find what I listed as #1 each year yourself if you wanted to…but I’ll save your lazy ass the trouble and do it for you here. (Sorry about what I said about your ass being lazy just there.)
But here’s the thing…it’s not as simple as telling you what my #1 was in each year. Time and perspective would knock some of them out of that position ten years later–sometimes only 1-2 years later. Plus, a lot of thought goes into these lists…sometimes I’ll make something #1 because of artistic merit or because of the statement it made rather than my actual fondness for it. Maybe my #1 from 2011 was my favorite album that year…but maybe if I re-evaluated I’d move up #5 because it was a major statement from that artist. Or maybe in hindsight I’ve simply not listened to the #1 from 2014 as much as I thought I would at the time, and while I stand by the placement it might not even be on the list of my ultimate favorites for the last 10 years. Or maybe I got it right each and every year because I’m great. (Nope!) There’s a TON of room for me to be a hypocrite here. And for the purposes of the below list, I think I’m weighting it much more by personal significance than any other metric.
So…let’s start like this… Here’s what I chose as my top ten each year from 2010-2018:
- 2010: Shooter Jennings & Heirophant – “Black Ribbons”
- 2011: Foo Fighters – “Wastin Light”
- 2012: Metric – “Synthetica”
- 2013: Jason Isbell – “Southeastern”
- 2014: Manchester Orchestra – “Cope”
- 2015: Father John Misty – “I Love You, Honeybear”
- 2016: David Bowie – “Blackstar”
- 2017: Ryan Adams – “Prisoner”
- 2018: Sloan – “12”
Yeah. Good list. But I also went back and re-read each year’s post because I’m nuts. And it’s not as simple as just putting those in order and saying “Come back later to see where this year’s #1 ends up!” No…it’s me…you know it’s not that easy. Some of those aren’t going to make the top ten for the whole decade, much less #1. For example, Ryan Adams is immediately being removed from contention because even though I enjoyed the record I’m not going to have someone who’s presently under investigation for an alleged sex offense on my list for the decade. Foo Fighters? Love that album…but I love some of the runners up from different years (and even that SAME year) more in hindsight. We’ve got some work to do, and that’s without even factoring in THIS year’s releases!
Looking back on 2010-2018, here are the albums in play for my top ten for the decade (again, excluding anything that came out this year), not counting the above…
- The Hold Steady – “Heaven is Whenever”
- Rufus Wainwright – “All Days Are Nights”
- Drive-By Truckers – “The Big To-Do”
- Flogging Molly – “Speed of Darkness”
- Lou Reed and Metallica – “Lulu”
- Rush – “Clockwork Angels”
- …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – “Lost Songs”
- David Bowie – “The Next Day”
- The National – “Trouble Will Find Me”
- Prince – “Plectrum Electrum”
- Prince – “Art Official Age”
- Jason Isbell – “Something More Than Free”
- Bottle Rockets – “South Broadway Athletic Club
- Amanda Shires – “My Piece of Land”
- Drive-By Truckers – “American Band”
- The Tragically Hip – “Man Machine Poem”
- Jason Isbell – “The Nashville Sound”
- Aimee Mann – “Mental Illness”
- Manchester Orchestra – “A Black Mile to the Surface”
- Guided By Voices – “How Do You Spell Heaven”
- Elvis Costello – “Look Now”
I want to talk about ALL those albums in detail. Fortunately I already have in the past…so you can search those in the search box to the left if you want to read about them.
But you’re here for my top ten of the decade (I guess). So let’s just do that… Here they are, from 10 to 1. And it feels weird not to include this year…so just assume that this year’s #1 would be #11 on this list. (Let me say in advance that it was HEARTBREAKING to cut off each of the above records from the top 10. Except Ryan Adams, pending investigation.)
Okay. (All cover art lovingly lifted from Amazon.)
#10 – Drive-By Truckers – “American Band” (#3 on 2016’s List)
I’ll be honest and say that a lot of DBT’s run post-Isbell has been hit and miss. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been consistently among my favorite records in those years. And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a TON of songs that are part of my personal soundtrack from those years. It just means that it’s a little difficult to point to one from those years where you can say, “There’s the one. There’s the best DBT album of this era.”
That changed in 2016.
“American Band” isn’t just a great rock record, it’s a snapshot of the Tr*mp years in real time. It captures the desperation and fear we all feel beautifully, but also offers a big dose of hope because you know that at least we’re not alone. From school shootings to BLM to flat out talking about Ferguson and “what it means” when another black kid is mowed down by another fucking white cop (or other asshole), this record is insanely important in a way not everybody is willing to be. And it has come to mean a lot to me.
#9 – Rush – “Clockwork Angels” (#6 on 2012’s List)
I’ll admit that I’m a little surprised to have come around on this one as much as I have. Sure, it was on 2016’s list, but I still thought of it as “a latter-day Rush album” and didn’t LOVE it in the same way I did “Counterparts” (my favorite Rush album) or the stuff older than that. But this one has grown to be in that same club in the last couple of years.
I love a good concept album…and while this one is only hazily a concept album, that was an immediate point in its favor. (People will argue that there’s nothing “hazy” about it, but come on…if you have to write a literal NOVEL to explain it, it’s a weak concept.) But there’s enough to hang onto in the story that it works for me. And the lyrical depth is there. The questioning of the “Watchmaker” looking over everyone, but not really caring is a strong metaphor I deeply identify with. Dark, but again with a little bit of hope…this is a great Rush album that you’ve got to spend some real time with to absorb. I’m glad I have.
Plus…the music just fucking RIPS, man.
#8 – Aimee Mann – “Mental Illness” (#3 on 2017’s List)
I adore Aimee Mann and this might be the most Aimee Mann record Aimee Mann has ever Aimee Manned. Beautiful acoustic tones and arrangements. Lots of background vocals to keep you listening closer. Heart-shattering lyrics. Sad and sweet, just how I like it.
I was in love with this album before I owned it. Aimee performed “Goose Snow Cone” on Colbert the week before the album released and by the time she hit the line “gotta keep it together when your friends come by” I was teary-eyed. When release day came I took it home on vinyl and CD as well, and I’m glad I did. I’ve just about worn out both. Maybe Aimee’s best work. And that’s saying a lot, because I am willing to fight the shit out of you over how great “The Forgotten Arm” is.
#7 – The Bottle Rockets – “South Broadway Athletic Club” (#2 on 2015’s List)
My brother had my favorite review of this album and it still makes me smile to think about it. On the day the album was released, The Bottle Rockets played a set at Vintage Vinyl here in St. Louis (they’re from here). They played the whole album front to back and Dave and I met the guys and got autographs after the set. Having heard them perform the whole thing, Dave was standing there with the album in-hand, still in the shrink-wrap and said, “This is one of my favorite albums of the year and I haven’t even listened to it yet.” Gold.
I love the guitar tones on this record. I love them so much I almost immediately went out and bought the same model of Rickenbacker that lead singer/guitarist Brian played at the in-store. This album changed my tone as a player. I decided to start taking my sound more seriously because of it–especially the clean tone. And every song on it is catchy as hell. Great record, and I owe a lot to it.
#6 – Lou Reed & Metallica – “Lulu” (#5 on 2011’s List)
I know. But you’re wrong.
The problem isn’t the music. The problem is that people expected it to be a Metallica album instead of a Lou Reed album. I will grant you that this is not a good Metallica album. But it is a FUCKING PHENOMENAL Lou Reed album. It should have been billed as “Lou Reed featuring Metallica” instead of a collaboration. This album is all Lou’s, even though I know Metallica had a hand in the writing.
I don’t know if it’s fair to call this the darkest album of Lou’s career. That’s REALLY hard to qualify for a guy who had an early release about a dude taking a hooker to a drugged out party, then she overdoses and they drag her body out to the street and leave her there, to the tune of the lyric, “It’s a universal truth, somebody turns that blue, you know the bitch will never fuck again.” But it still might be. It’s definitely the heaviest thing he’s done. And he needed a Metallica there to push him where he needed to go, sonically. But then there’s also “Junior Dad,” which is quiet and beautiful and has a 10 minute outro that would fit in as well with his album of songs meant for meditation as with anything else.
This was the last record Lou ever did. One of his most intense and definitely one of his most challenging. It’s art on a level he hadn’t done before, and Metallica DAMN sure hadn’t either. It’s a masterpiece. And you and your “I am the table” memes need to show it some fucking respect.
#5 – The Hold Steady – “Heaven is Whenever” (#2 on 2010’s List)
I think this is my favorite Hold Steady album, even though it doesn’t have my favorite song on it. (Favorite song is “Constructive Summer” off “Stay Positive.”) This is one of those albums where I can’t even pinpoint what it is about it that speaks to me so deeply. I mean, yeah…the lyrics…but you can have great lyrics and still make a mediocre or bad record. This one fires on all cylinders. Something about the first few pedal-steel (lap steel? just a guitar with a slide?) notes makes it feel like an old friend right out of the gate.
I’m not sure when this one snuck into being one of my favorites of the last ten years. Sure it was #2 in 2010. Okay. Fine. But a lot of stuff in the past ten years was #2 and not all of them remained a decade-defining record for me. “Heaven is Forever” did.
“You can’t get every girl. You’ll get the ones you love the best. You won’t get every girl. You’ll love the ones you get the best. You can’t kiss every girl. You’ve gotta trust me on this one.”
Best advice any band gave me in the last 10 years.
#4 – Manchester Orchestra – “A Black Mile to the Surface” (#2 on 2017’s List)
Manchester Orchestra has been on a couple lists. They were #1 in 2014 with “Cope.” But “Black Mile” is the one that made the list.
A relatively recent release compared to some others on the list–especially the ones this high up. But this one got its hooks into me DEEP. It’s a great “depression” record, if you get what I mean. There are layers of beauty to this record that I can’t explain. And some of them occur while there’s flat-out screaming going on. They captured a mood and a mental landscape in a way I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else do in this generation of musicians. Heavy but melodic and gentle all at once.
I said in 2017 that I had trouble picking out a standout track on this record because in the era of singles they wrote an ALBUM. And I stand by that. I only listen to this one in its entirety. It’s one of the few that I’ve had a “driveway moment” with in recent years, where I’ve gotten home, but the record isn’t over yet, so I just sit in the driveway and listen to the rest of it.
I’m still irritated with myself that I didn’t go to see this tour. And it’s also weird that I haven’t bought it on vinyl yet. I could probably change the latter this weekend.
#3 – Shooter Jennings & Hierophant – “Black Ribbons” (#1 on 2010’s List)
I recently talked about this one on my podcast. It’s one of my favorite concept albums, but also one of my favorite ALBUMS. It’s a story of the government taking away so much of our freedom that even speech is relegated and the radio is shutting down. Stephen King is featured on the album as the voice of the last free radio station. And the story of the album plays out like one of his books, only much more terrifyingly real.
Genre-bending and destroying in tone. Politically charged in concept. Brilliant on all points. It was written coming out of the Bush years where we thought it couldn’t get any worse. Now that we’re stuck with the fucking impotent, gutless, shameless, hypocritical, spineless, useless, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, urine-soaked, traitorous, motherfucking lunatic Antichrist we WILLINGLY GODDAMN ELECTED in 2016, this album is only getting more and more applicable. You need to track it down if you haven’t heard it.
#2 – Jason Isbell – “Southeastern” (#1 on 2013’s List)
In many ways, Jason Isbell’s career is on par with The Who for me in terms of personal meaning and depth. The guy writes some of the best songs you could possibly ask anybody to write and for me the love affair with his solo career really took off with “Southeastern.” (Although I’d been a fan of his work since he was in the Drive-By Truckers.) This album is one that is clearly personal for him (although, aren’t they all?) but rather than being inaccessible as a result, it makes it all the more relatable.
The tone of the album being so personal lends itself very well to the mostly acoustic vibe of the album. I remember when I saw Isbell touring in support of the album, he got to a block of songs from this record and exchanged his electric for an acoustic, then I don’t think he took it off for 30 minutes just hitting this song list as hard as he could. It was wonderful.
This is one of those albums that is always going to be a go-to for me. It’s up there with “Harvest” or “Quadrophenia.” I just ALWAYS want to hear this album. I’m floundering to find things to say about it other than that. I just ALWAYS want to hear “Southeastern.” Might spin it tonight, in fact. Join me, won’t you?
#1 – David Bowie – “Blackstar” (#1 on 2016’s List)
I doubt that there was much question that this would be number 1.
I’ve got a lot of albums on this list that connected with me in a personal way. I don’t know if there’s a more personal connection possible than the death-letter Bowie left for all of his fans in “Blackstar.” It hits all the right personal emotional beats for me, but there’s so much more than that, too.
Bowie knew he was dying. He’d been quietly fighting cancer and the writing was on the wall. Most fans had been hearing rumors of him being sick for about 10 years, but with no real substantiation. But in the last year of his life, Bowie knew. And he turned it into art. “Blackstar” was released on Bowie’s birthday–I bought it on CD and vinyl that same day. Then two days later, Bowie was gone. And the whole album with it’s sparse, dark mood with songs so clearly about saying goodbye clicked in the head of everyone who’d heard it and we all knew this album would be the closest thing we’d ever get to Bowie telling us we’d be okay without him and he’d miss us.
What could be sadder? What could be more beautiful?
“Blackstar” isn’t necessarily the album on this list that I’m going to listen to the most–in true Bowie fashion, his final piece demands a lot of the listener. But it is the album that I will always remember where I was when I first heard it, and I’ll always remember it as the first thing I listened to when I heard the news. It was the only thing that made sense at the time.
Fuck, I still miss him.
So…a lot of stuff that was #1 for the year wasn’t even on this list. And apparently I liked 2016 and 2017 more than most years. It’s funny how things change.
So…what did we learn from all this? Not a damn thing.
See you soon with the top ten of 2019!