150. Grouper – A I A: Alien Observer (2011)
Liz Harris released three classic albums from 2008-2014 (Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, A I A: Alien Observer, and Ruins; the one in the middle is often overlooked. A I A: Alien Observer is also the most purely-ambient of the three and a few steps removed from the dream pop genre label you often see her classified under. The person-less, darkly-skyward album cover sets the mood for these reverb-filled, ethereal set pieces (the term “songs” sounds like it undercuts her style). The drones have an emotive grace with her hovering vocals like Julianna Barwick’s great The Magic Place released this same year, but A I A never comes close to being passive. — Andrew Cox
149. Big Boi – Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (2010)
OutKast never got back together this decade, and André 3000 never got around to that solo album, but while people were hyping up some imaginary comeback, Big Boi released a great addition to the OEU (OutKast Extended Universe). In a just world, the album’s best material (“Shutterbugg,” “Shine Blockas,” “Turns Me On”) would be as popular and culturally significant as “The Way You Move.” Big Boi would go on to release two terrible follow-ups that effectively stripped his critical darling status, but who needs validation when your deep cuts are great like “Tangerine” and “Hustle Blood.” It’s absolutely not a problem to me that Sir Luscious Left Foot doesn’t quite convey the “hip” in hip-hop; that’s what draws me to it. — Andrew Cox
148. Anderson .Paak – Malibu (2016)
Anderson .Paak’s Malibu is a familiar album, straight from the soul. Paak has this power to talk directly to the listener, as if he and his band are performing right in your living room. Malibu is an incredibly personal record to him. Like a painter creating a scene, he mentions his father, who was sent to jail and who he didn’t see until his funeral, and his South Korean mother who “caught the gambling bug.” The imagery is reflective and introspective. It’s not sad; it merely confronts his past in a direct and conversational manner. Paak is a natural, and Malibu is filled to the brim with that confidence. — Happy Haugen
147. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – EARS (2016)
The Buchla 100 Series synthesizer: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s weapon of choice. This is difficult 1960s analog equipment — revolutionary and coincided with the commercial rise of electronic music. Almost unavoidably, the sounds of discovery and playfulness are all over EARS, Smith’s breakout album. Even the song titles suggest it — “First Flight” and “Rare Things Grow,” for example. The album is absolutely singular in its folktronica; fluttering instruments are filtered through the Buchla for a robotic Summer of Love vibe. On a song like “Wetlands,” Smith’s vocals are stretched out like Laffy Taffy into a confectionery melody that is the payoff for the drifting ambient world-setting in the first half. EARS attained a cult fandom through this remarkable accessibility within its unique brand of experimentation. — Andrew Cox
146. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (2012)
The great thing about listening to Dirty Projectors, is that you can feel instantly cooler just by the first ten seconds. Swing Lo Magellan excels not only in its opener, but all that follows, constantly making unpredictable twists and turns. There’s a poetic balance between Dirty Projectors’ tendency to go the more electronice route (“Offspring Are Blank”) but also a satisfying amount of sweet, folk centered tracks (“Swing Lo Magellan”). “Dance For You” is a beautiful, compelling track, an honest confession of love, refreshing and original in its lyrics and cheery approach. The instrumentals feel like their own atmosphere with vocals only coming to visit, and the blend of the two incredibly stunning. — Virginia Croft
145. St. Vincent – St. Vincent (2014)
“The hardest thing for any musician to do is to learn how to play like yourself, and I think I did that on this record.” – St. Vincent
In her Grammy award-winning eponymous fourth studio album, St. Vincent (Annie Clark) gives us a substantial body of work with big and brassy guitar on the catchy single “Digital Witness” (being “dependent on digital eyes validating our experience”), tenderness on “I Prefer Your Love” (a song “near and dear to her heart” about her mother) and she captures existential loneliness on “Regret.” She’s upbeat on a song titled “Psychopath,” leaves us haunted on “Prince Johnny,” and electrifies on “Every Tear Disappears” (a “rumination on what it seems to be and what it actually is”). Clark set out to make something with enough groove and kinetic energy to feel alive, but something with enough heart that you could have in your vulnerable moment, and she undoubtedly achieved that. The album is intoxicating with plenty of heart, follows 2012’s David Byrne collaboration, “Love This Giant,” so we feel his influence at times, but it’s always St. Vincent, playing like herself. — Leslie Richin
144. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012)
Miguel has been hard to pin down this decade. Should he be treated more as an R&B auteur like The-Dream or more as a pop star just trying to stand out in a crowded field? The answer is both on Kaleidoscope Dream, his first album for RCA Records and first one with critical acclaim. Take away the subject matter around sex and drugs, and you have a pretty tame album: 11 tracks, 42 minutes, no interludes or skits. However, it’s that reserved approach that creates an album that aims to have 11 bangers that get to the point. It works. “Adorn” and “Do You…” are two of the best pop singles this decade. The traditionalist approach calls back to Maxwell and other great alt-R&B stars from the ’90s, and just like in their best work, there’s a timeless feel that’ll never let you down. — Andrew Cox
143. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness (2014)
Opening her second album with the heart swelling tenderness of “Unfucktheworld,” Angel Olsen cements Burn Your Fire For No Witness as a worthy follow-up to her debut album Half Way Home.
Throughout the album, the folk rock darling ponders the pains of love and yearns for healing with angst-ridden songwriting and a beautifully haunting vocal delivery. The record also boasts a wide variety of musical styles, all held together by Olsen’s wistful, almost birdlike voice.
Soft rock jam “Lights Out” could easily have been a classic from the ’70s and Olsen puts a distorted, lo-fi spin on the country genre with “Hi-Five,” all while the raw, stripped-down performances of “White Fire” and “Iota” are sure to make even the toughest listener shed a tear. With her spellbinding writing and gorgeous composition, Burn Your Fire is a prime example of why Olsen is one of the most exciting artists on the indie scene. — Drew Pearce
142. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (2016)
Losing Leonard Cohen in 2016 felt especially cruel. Bowie had passed away three days after Blackstar, but we had to sit with You Want It Darker for nineteen days before the same happened to Cohen. There was death, holy reckoning, and letting go splattered all over every song — each one seemingly his best since 1988’s I’m Your Man. He mentioned being “out of the game” on a couple of songs; whether from a poker table or awaiting trial, there was an emphatic heaviness to his every metaphor. Cohen’s girlfriend in the ’60s and inspiration for some of his best-known work, Marianne Ihlen, had died that summer, and “Traveling Light” references that he’s running late, just like in the email he sent to her on her deathbed. It was coming, and Cohen soundtracked it all — his moral and religious quandaries, his recollections of the past, his love, his God. It’s heartbreaking in its solemn peace, but his treaty for us was outlined — thought by thought. — Andrew Cox
141. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (2011)
“You don’t know what’s in store” sings Abel Tesfaye on “High For This,” opening up House of Balloons with a wink. What sounds like a come-on to a potential conquest, steeped in reverse psychology, was in fact directed towards the audience.
Before Tesfaye became a popstar, before the high-profile relationships and ambition, there was only darkness and myths. House of Balloons, the debut mixtape which dropped without fanfare in spring 2011, was built on mystery and access. With no contextual information to process, no cover art to stare at in search of answers, we were left to create our own myths about the Weeknd.
The songs on House of Balloons didn’t give up any secrets but what they did reveal was an intoxicating aura. Between Drake and the Weeknd, Toronto was starting to come up on everyone’s lips. While Take Care eulogized the city as a frozen palace, House of Balloons was about Toronto’s heights and depths: describing the loft parties, the drug-induced euphoria, the comedowns and seedy rooms full of darkness and danger. Strip away the indie and post-punk references and you’re left with something that couldn’t be mistaken for contemporary R&B. The menace was plenty. But the pop hooks are there and so is that fucking voice – full of yearning and desire it almost felt scary to listen to.
When Tesfaye made it clear he wanted to be seen as the heir to the throne Michael Jackson abdicated, the myths disappeared. They had to. But for a brief moment, he was capable of making the stories more compelling than the truth. — Jibril Yassin
Mackenzie Cummings-Grady’s Honorable Mentions
- Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs (2019)
Hushed and inviting, Pratt’s whispered tone pulls you in and entrances you almost immediately. At times she is heard clear as a whistle, and other times she mutters playfully, letting the light strum of a guitar or twiddle of a flute push her along like a gentle current. Quiet Signs will swoon you into a daydream.
- Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana (2019)
One of the best rap albums of the year, Bandana finds Gibbs and Madlib at the peak of their craft. Every track on Bandana is meticulously crafted thanks to Madlib’s eagerness to experiment. Gibbs flows alongside him effortlessly, switching his vibrato in a mere instant, and demonstrating himself to be one of the modern day’s most versatile emcees.
- Jay Som – Anak Ko (2019)
Anak Ko is more subtly tuned and lo-fi-influenced than its predecessor, but thanks to the immeasurable talent of Jay Som, it possesses a refined charm. Melina Duterte’s talent is boundless, and Anak Ko is a perfect example of an artist fully engrossed in her element.
- The Japanese House – Good at Falling (2019)
The beauty of Amber Bain is that she understands the complexity of human experiences and sings about them in a way that’s groundbreaking yet relatable. After a slew of increasingly successful EPs, The Japanese House’s debut LP shows Amber Bain taking her electro-indie rock identity and opening it up to breathe with amazing results.
140. Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here? (2010)
“Kosmische Musik” (German for Cosmic Music) — this was the term that came before krautrock, and in the ’70s was used to describe German electronic/experimental artists like Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, etc. In 1972, Ohr Records released the compilation Kosmische Muzik to cement the genre’s place in music. The members of Emeralds were neither German nor even alive in the ’70s, but they carried the spirit of this progressive electronic sound like no other in their short lifespan together. Does It Look Like I’m Here? is one of those albums that is shocking in its flawless immediacy. The space-age nostalgia it evokes is the warmest blanket of escapism. An album of this caliber in this field is incredibly rare; we listen to it like a jewel that could crumble at the slightest pressure. — Andrew Cox
139. Perfume Genius – No Shape (2017)
Mike Hadreas is our greatest balladeer at the moment and is reclaiming the musical style from aesthetic milquetoast. Lead single “Slip Away” could work simply with his stunning high-range vocals and pulsating rhythm, but with end of the first verse, the song explodes like a fast-forwarded Spring bloom. Every song here takes unpredictable turns or is crafted elaborately to underscore Hadreas’ refined confidence. With sentimental balladry always destined to be awards bait (Adele, any political anthem up for an Oscar for Best Original Song), it shouldn’t be surprising that No Shape managed to be nominated for a Grammy under Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical losing to that Bruno Mars album that won everything. The subversive production choices are a template for any artist looking to magnify their emotive vision; it may not work for every song, as is the case with No Shape, but we’re always far beyond sappy territory. — Andrew Cox
138. Macintosh Plus – Floral Shoppe (2011)
Do you even online, bro? The Vaporwave aesthetic was the logical fallout of terminally-online people coping with nostalgia for internet’s earliest days. What that meant for music was glitchy, sample-heavy synth-pop that satirically dealt with pop culture. Ramona Xavier’s Floral Shoppe is the genre’s Rosetta Stone — the means of access and interpretation for people such as myself who will absolutely never have a Reddit account. Songs like “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー” and “ライブラリ” liberally sample early-’80s hits from Diana Ross and Pages to provide the reliable pop structure for Xavier to chop & screw with. Much of Vaporwave is featherweight nostalgia ploys, but Floral Shoppe suggested this was the natural evolution into an acceptance of video game soundtracks, plunderphonics, and online culture. There’s still room to grow. — Andrew Cox
137. Young Thug – Barter 6 (2015)
Young Thug went from an oddity to directly shaping rap in his image in less than five years but prior to Barter 6, he was still untested when it came to crafting solo full-lengths. Young Thug felt more like a rapper you could only hear in limited quantities, his zaniness and off-the-wall vocal tics too much to contain in a single song. It’s what made his collaboration with Rich Homie Quan – Tha Tour Pt. 1 – so arresting. With no suitable foil to bounce off, Young Thug flipped the script on his “debut mixtape” Barter 6.
Barter 6, and Young Thug by extension thrive on iconoclasm. Listeners expecting a showcase that took the rapper’s weirdness to the nth degree were surprised to hear Thugger utilize considerable restraint in his craft. Barter 6 doesn’t revel in chaos like previous Thugger releases; it built structures for him to raze. Every norm was broken, every conventional idea of what a rapper should be doing shattered. Stylistically, Young Thug takes his inimitable delivery to new heights, outrapping every guest who shows up on Barter 6 with little effort shown and treated every bar as a hook-in-waiting. Thugger’s devil-may-care attitude and his blossoming sense of melody, combined with songwriting that reached new peaks, make Barter 6 a thrilling project and a pivotal blueprint in 2010s rap. — Jibril Yassin
136. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (II) (2010)
Crystal Castles have never played by the rules, which is precisely why they’ve been able to craft some of the most boundary-pushing, challenging electronica that the genre has to offer. The Canadian duo’s second studio album, Crystal Castles (II), found the pair building upon the experimental electronic landscapes they sowed on their iconic self-titled 2008 debut. (II also features original vocalist Alice Glass, who departed the band in 2014 and went solo, alleging that her former bandmate Ethan Kath had been abusive.) Whether you prefer your music confrontational and noisy like on the frantic, skittering “Doe Deer,” or lush and cosmic like on the rhythmic “Celestica,” Crystal Castles (II) provides transcendent variety, spanning everything from dark, velvety ‘80s-tinged new-wave (“Violent Dreams”) to rave-ready electro-clash (“Baptism”). — Erica Russell
135. Joanna Newsom – Divers (2015)
Newsom’s latest venture is nothing short of a masterpiece. Nearly every tune is as fascinatingly adventurous for its changing arrangements as it is for its core songwriting, with the quirky “Anecdotes,” the Kate Bush-esque “Leaving the City,” the Joni Mitchell-like “Goose Eggs,” and the utterly sublime “Divers” etching themselves into your memory. Add to that the fact that its awe-inspiring finale, “Time, as a Symptom,” is the single greatest piece of music I’ve ever heard — as well as the fact that it ends where it began, making Divers a continuous loop — and you have the full realization of her genius. — Jordan Blum
134. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (2016)
The possibility of a new serving of beats, rhymes, and life from A Tribe Called Quest seemed all but impossible following their initial break-up, the reunion tours filled with tension and most regrettably, Phife Dawg’s untimely death in 2016 due to complications related to diabetes. Tribe always sounded like they had unfinished business to settle, one more album to top off what was considered one of the greatest album runs ever conducted by a rap group. Fortunately, We got it from Here… is that album, a quiet meditation on the state of global affairs featuring excellent performances from Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and appearing for the first time since the group’s debut, Jarobi, showing no signs of rust as he holds his own. We got it from here marked the moment where Tribe flipped the script and sounded remarkably vital. Maybe it was Q-Tip’s production which scoffed at any attempts at waxing nostalgia. Maybe it was the sheer fun had in hearing all three MCs (plus guests including Busta Rhymes, Consequence, Kanye West, and Andre 3000) trade-off verses with one another with no bigger plan in sight. Tribe never sounded more in step with the times and it’s a true shame we’ll never get another album quite like this one. — Jibril Yassin
133. Big Thief – Two Hands (2019)
[Ed. note: You’ll see two blurbs here; I screwed up and assigned them to two people at the same time.]
Big Thief is a group of genius songwriters and wondrous musicians, and Two Hands, their second album of 2019, is their brainchild. It’s a harrowing album, in the sense that this is Big Thief in their prime – Capacity and Masterpiece are excellent albums front to back, of course, but there’s something that Two Hands has that no other Big Thief album can claim. Two Hands is an intense album, full of moments that makes the listener ache: feeling for Adrianne Lenker’s emotional and straight-from-the-heart vocal delivery, guitar solos that rip across your eardrums, and a rhythm section so chaotically straightforward. But then, it all cuts out, and you can take a breath again as Lenker soothes you with her dreamy voice. Two Hands is Big Thief not holding back and giving us a record that is honest and true. — Happy Haugen
Two Hands is Big Thief’s second near-perfect album of 2019, a feat that for any other band would feel like showing off. But Big Thief, in their vastness, feel beyond such a thing — you’d never accuse, say, a mountain of showing off, and on Two Hands, Lenker’s songwriting is solidified as a similar force of nature. There’s a tectonic history beneath her songs, an entire world churning away to offer up the exact right turn of musical phrase. The songs here feel preordained, like temples and roads and, yes, mountains have been formed with the eventual pluck of Lenker’s guitar or tumble of Oleartchik’s bass in mind. In a chaotic and spiraling 2019, they feel like a true miracle, so broad, precise and self-assured. — Justin Kamp
132. Taylor Swift – 1989 (2014)
In my eyes, 1989 marks Taylor Swift’s official transition, tearing up her country roots and fully exploring her strong capacity for pop music. In quintessential Taylor style, she maintains her lyrical focus, finding new ways to speak of love, hate, and all the in-betweens. The difference now is the increased presence of production in her music with a specific focus on that 80’s synth sound. Songs like “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” were released as singles and broke the internet for their undeniable catchiness and pop power. Other cuts, such as “Style” and “New Romantics,” are even better with their developed sound and honest look at modern romance. Her Indianapolis stop on this tour was my first stadium show — complete with color-changing wristbands, confetti, and a mashup of “Wildest Dreams” and “Enchanted” that melted me, it was a party, celebrating Taylor Swift’s successful rebirth. — Sadie Burrows
131. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music (2012)
Real R.A.P Music
Killer Mike’s pen is deadly. It is honest; it is incendiary; it is artful. You may just know him as one mouthy half of Grammy-nominated Run The Jewels or you may know him as one of the most successful businessmen in Atlanta, GA.
“For my folk and my people free Hoover, free Ford. The law’ll never break us of we’re all on one accord,”
-Killer Mike, Ghetto Gospel
He is a decorated emcee in his own right. His fifth-studio album, R.A.P Music, dropped in May 2012 and man did it drop. Songs like “Reagan,” “Ghetto Gospel” and “Butane (Champion’s Anthem)” set fire to the status quo of rappers going on at length about their sexual conquest or ridiculous amounts of chains and cars.
Conspicuous consumption makes its way onto the album for sure, but Killer Mike also condemns what the systems do with the Black dollar. He condemns lying presidents, inequality and white women scheming.
“Killing them, I’m killing me. This is my solilioquy Iller than the illest beat. I will spit the illest shit from right here to infinity,”
-Killer Mike, Butane (Champion’s Anthem)
R.A.P Music’s beat selection is cohesive, not abrasive. Contrary to rap music bred in Atlanta today, the instrumentals take a soulful backseat to Killer Mike’s eloquent monologues on his life, enemies of the Black body and the Black experience.
His social commentary is as hood as it is accurate; R.A.P. Music’s only pitfall is that is doesn’t come with transcript ripe with annotations for where to read more. And who better than to handle this mainstream snub-release than an independent off-shoot from Cartoon Network’s Williams Street mixed with Warner Music Group.
Killer Mike is one of the best lyricists of his time. I often replay R.A.P Music songs before they’re finished, just to catch his alliteration, double-entendres and overall verbal mastery. Killer Mike makes me less sad that Black people speak English, the colonizer’s language. — Chanell Noise
Happy Haugen’s Honorable Mentions
- Alex Cameron – Forced Witness (2017)
On Forced Witness, Alex Cameron’s sly and crafty songwriting knows no bounds as he tells tales of misconstrued affection, newfound freedom, and trying to navigate love in the age of the Internet. There’s truly not a group doing it like Al Cam and his posse.
- Jim James – Uniform Distortion (2018)
The My Morning Jacket frontman’s third solo album is an introspective record that finds Jim James doing what he knows best: playing the guitar and writing songs that hook the ear. On Uniform Distortion, he does just that over the course of 40 distorted minutes.
- Omni – Deluxe (2016)
Champions of the ’70s/’80s sound of Devo and Television, Omni’s first record is post-punk at its finest. The Atlanta hitmakers created an album that has the most intricate hooks that anyone can dance to.
- The Replacements – Dead Man’s Pop (2019)
The alternative legends dug up various old mixes, a jam session with Tom Waits, and even a live show and threw it together 30 years later. With a new spin on the songs that are already much beloved, Dead Man’s Pop is the perfect example of what a box set should be.
- Twin Peaks – Lookout Low (2019)
Twin Peaks’ fourth album is a mature effort that shows just how far they’ve come since forming in 2010. The band has done a lot of growing up due to consistent touring, and their songwriting has excelled as a result.
130. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (2017)
Some people loathed LCD Soundsystem’s return. How dare they give us that massive final concert and then come back six years later? Their 2010 classic This Is Happening brought a closure to the LCD Soundsystem story that has been tainted now; by the end, James Murphy was at “home.” Now just a few years later, he sounds displaced and anxious, which turns into a biting judgement across some of his best lyrics.
“All the hits are saying the same thing”
“You know you’re the only one who’s been destroying all the fun”
“Well there’s a full blown rebellion, but you’re easy to confuse”
Despite his age and revered status, Murphy’s still talking to the kids — the ones he’s been “losing his edge” to all these years. Maybe for some, it sounded like the spinning of his creative wheels — an afterthought of an epilogue with a bad album cover. But American Dream remains illuminating in Murphy’s heavy use of a second-person you. Is it him singing to us, him singing to him, or us singing to us? The answer is yes, we’re all having a bad dream. — Andrew Cox
129. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
GY!BE’s 2012 record finds them successfully picking up where they left off after 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. It’s expectedly-but-rewardingly brooding, bleak, and brilliant. The guitar-heavy grittiness of starter “Mladic” acts as a raucous call-to-action before “Their Helicopters’ Sing” offers a maddening orchestral respite that harkens back to the apocalyptic dissonance of their debut gem F♯ A♯ ∞. From there, “We Drift Like Worried Fire” veers surprisingly close to hospitable shoegaze at times, allowing the noise collage “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable” to work as a haunting epilogue of sorts. It’s surely a welcomed return for the post-rock godfathers. — Jordan Blum
128. The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011)
Leyland Kirby’s breakout as The Caretaker was born in a lull. Volcanic ash had choked Europe the previous spring and protestors would choke Zuccotti Park the following fall, but here was a quiet and beautiful ghost. The album is famously about the experience of memory loss, with its crackling loops meant to resemble the fragmented mind of an Alzheimer’s patient. And at the time, something beautiful and sad was what we needed — a common enemy in the form of time. But Bliss’s true triumph is providing an epochal update on its ambient forebear, William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. Where that record defined the 2000s’ fixation on destruction, Bliss presages the cultural amnesia that infected this decade: a mass nostalgia for some fabled past that is little more than fragments and static. — Justin Kamp
127. The-Dream – Love King (2010)
The Love Trilogy ended where it started — with The-Dream still the best act in R&B. In the first 15 seconds, he spells the album title and drops us in on his trademark synth, and it’s smooth sailing to the end. It’s hard to describe The-Dream’s sound without associative images: designer sweatpants at the club, flat-bills at 5-star restaurants, Nike Air Yeezys at Sunday service — you get the point. There’s just effortlessly hip luxury across 12 tracks here. Still, he proved to have another gear with the centerpiece “Yamaha” — one of the best non-Prince Prince songs ever made. “Still got your name tattooed on my baaaaaaaaaack” is still a hilarious plot twist; it should have been a global hit. — Andrew Cox
126. Low – Double Negative (2018)
Full of hazy, ethereal mumblings and soothing bass lines, Low’s Double Negative propels the listener to another world altogether. While much of the album centers around a trance-like, bass heavy theme, there are moments that delve into a darker abyss — like on opener “Quorum,” which sounds much more like a Nine Inch Nails or Massive Attack outtake. The quieter moments feel like the band got snowed in and turned to more electronic outlets, to warm themselves from the outside in. Listening to Double Negative is an immersive experience, one that can put you in the center of the band’s psyche completely, with thumping bass to wipe out all the other noise. — Virginia Croft