The 2010’s will probably always stand as the most impactful decade on my life. In terms of personal development, it would be hard to surpass all of the changes that happened during the past ten years. This is the decade where I became an adult. Where, in 2011, I quit my day job to start playing music for a living. Traveled to Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and 43 different American States. Lost faith and found it again. Bought a house in 2017, got married in 2018, and adopted our dog in 2019.
Through all of that, music has been a constant, unyielding presence. So, I decided to make a list of the top 12 albums of this past decade. This list is a hybrid of both “best” and “favorite”, meaning that I tried to blend my preference with the cultural and artistic impact that each record had. There are obvious holes here; I have not spent enough time with albums like Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves or Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear to rank them. The absence of such records is entirely my fault, so I hope you won’t hold those omissions against me, and I hope these rankings bring back your own musical memories.
12. Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You (2018)
In an uncertain time for our world, when things were falling apart around us, Brandi Carlile gave us what she knew we needed. Is there anything better than seeing an exceptional talent put it all together for a career-defining album like this one? “The Joke” alone would be enough to put a project onto a “Best-Of” list.
Compassion and conviction permeate the 10 songs on By the Way, and everyone will find their burden is lighter, or at least feel a little more seen after a listen. You’d be hard pressed to find a more genuine soul in music, and this album is a wonderful reflection of that.
11. John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat (2015)
John Moreland earned a reputation as a sad bastard with his first record, In the Throes. Tulsa Heat shows otherwise. There is plenty of joy to go around here; just listen to the tremolo guitars on the ironically titled “Sad Baptist Rain.” Every song on this record is just so solid. I must have listened to it two-dozen times when I first picked up a copy, and it never wore on me. It’s an exceptionally crafted album, from the songs themselves to the actual production, which was handled by John himself.
Really, there are a lot of different emotions in these songs. But the reason that Moreland has earned such a reputation for sad songs is on full display with “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry.” It’s a masterful centerpiece of a record that I’ll never hesitate to hit play on.
10. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (2011)
During Martin Scorcese’s doc-rock-mockumentary about the Bob Dylan tour of the same name, “Rolling Thunder Revue”, there is a gem of a moment involving Bob and Hurricane Carter, the wrongly-accused boxer who became the subject of an epic song. Carter spoke of how every time he saw Dylan, “He seemed like he was searching for something else. It was as if he was saying, who are you man? Are you what I seek?”
Justin Vernon also seems to reside in that permanent place of searching for something. Meaning? Love? Acceptance? God? A place? A time? That restless spirit starts on For Emma, Forever Ago, and carries all the way through to 22, A Million and i, i. I’ve seen both of those albums on lists like this, but I have a special place in my heart for this self-titled project. The first time I heard “Holocene”, I cried. I can’t say that for very many songs.
9. Paramore – After Laughter (2017)
Hayley Williams has been one of my favorite rock-and-roll singers for a long time, but you could accuse early Paramore works of being a little shallow. Not so with After Laughter. This is heavy music, in every sense of the word. Musically, it’s heavily influenced by 80’s new-wave. Lyrically, it’s one of the saddest collections of songs that you’ll find.
During the making of this album, Hayley Williams went through a separation and subsequent divorce. This is her “Blood on the Tracks,” and if you haven’t listened to this album because it’s by a band known for pop-rock, you’re really missing out on a modern day masterpiece.
8. Amanda Shires – To the Sunset (2018)
Amanda Shires is an absolute, unabashed weirdo with a million dollar voice. She found a way to really make both of those qualities shine on Sunset, a trippy journey through the life of a badass woman who happens to be a wife, mother, and fiddler. There is zero chance that she is giving in to anything or anybody, and as she sings on “Break Out the Champagne”, “let’s get on with the shit show” seems like a perfect rallying cry for the new decade.
My admiration for Amanda Shires as a person doesn’t change the fact that this album Rocks, capital R intended. The name of the record comes from the chorus of “Eve’s Daughter,” and I think it represents her spirit so well. “Maybe it was circumstance, but I saw my chance and I took it. To the sunset, shiftin’ gears, to the somethin’-better shinin’ diamond-clear.” It’s no surprise that she ended up starting a country supergroup for all time (The Highwomen) not long after she finished this record. Like I said, she’s a badass.
7. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)
Speaking of badasses, Sturgill Simpson! His cynicism, disdain for the establishment, and the Telecaster are all turned up to 10 on this record. For myself and many other disillusioned Gen-Xers and Millennials, Sturgill became a true generational voice with this album.
Don’t get me wrong, hope isn’t lost. All you need is a little light, and Sturgill is here to provide it for everyone who is hoping them circles on the paper don’t call them back today. If you missed straight up honest-to-God country music the way that I did, Metamodern is water in the desert. “Long White Line” sounds like a lost-but-found track from a Waylon record, circa 1971. It’s easy to hear why Sturgill gets compared to Waylon and Willie and the boys, but he doesn’t like that comparison. Because he doesn’t like anything. Long live pissed-off Sturgill Simpson.
6. Hozier – Hozier (2014)
There aren’t a lot of artists who can lay claim to a debut like this one. Hozier burst onto the music scene with a jolt of bluesified energy, and it instantly felt like he would take over the world. This album made me spend a lot of money on tickets and drive all the way to Nashville for a concert. I’m so glad that I did, because it still ranks as one of the best shows I’ve seen. He played and sang with a conviction that reached all the way to the back row of the Ryman.
Try to count along to the multitude of rhythms and time signatures on “From Eden.” Grab a guitar and decipher the intro on “Jackie and Wilson,” or just soak in the righteous delta feel of “Work Song.” This record is one of the finest pieces of modern blues I’ve heard, and it’s very much a blessing and a curse. I went back to see Hozier in concert again this year, and he looked tired. His follow-up to this album sounded a bit tired too, and it isn’t surprising. This is one of those records that is nearly impossible to follow.
5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
“I got a bone to pick,” proclaims Kendrick Lamar at the start of “King Kunta.” By the time the album ends, he’ll have aired his fair share of grievances over some of the filthiest grooves you’ve ever heard. Kendrick manages to accomplish a lot of truly special things on this record; who would have thought that you could make a banger about police brutality? But that’s exactly what he does on “Alright,” with an assist from Pharrell Williams.
Everyone knew he was great after Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, but this record proved Kendrick Lamar to be the best rapper on the planet. DAMN and his work on the Black Panther soundtrack further proved the point, but Butterfly is Kendrick’s Magnum Opus.
4. Chris Stapleton – Traveller (2015)
I’ve been a fan of Chris Stapleton since his bluegrass days, when he was singing about whiskey and women with The Steeldrivers. I knew his voice was incredible, and I knew his songwriting was first rate, but I had no idea that he would become the biggest selling artist in country music. This album is why.
So many of the albums on this list stem from some sort of big change in the artists’ life. Traveller is no exception, as the death of Chris Stapleton’s father spurred him to take a sojourn through New Mexico, Arizona, and the high-lonesome country of the Southwest. You can hear the desert wind blowing through tracks like “Outlaw State of Mind” and “Traveller,” and the burden of grief and loss is most evident in all-timers like “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” and “Fire Away.” Every. Single. Song. Is. Amazing. Chris Stapleton pretty much single-handedly saved commercial Country Music, and it all starts here.
3. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
We view Kanye West mostly as a meme now. He’s the man entirely painted in silver on a boat in Miami, or the guy wearing a MAGA hat across from President Trump at the White House. Or, if your memory goes back far enough, he’s the arrogant jerk grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift at the VMA’s, or the disruptive force proclaiming on national TV that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” in a post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s a Kardashian. It’s too easy to forget that back in 2011, he was also one of the most brilliant minds in music, and that he turned all of that personal turmoil into a true hip-hop masterpiece.
Just the names involved with this record are INSANE. Elton John, Justin Vernon, John Legend, Jay-Z, Raekwon, Pusha T, Nicki Minaj, Rhianna…need I go on? This album is a legacy statement, and it marked the end of an era in the music industry. Yeezy reportedly spent over $3,000,000 of record label money to make this album, and that’s something that simply won’t happen in 2020. Fantasy marks the end of the conventional album, the last gasp of a business model based on physical album sales. It’s all streaming now, and there simply isn’t enough return on investment to make this kind of a record anymore. Before this decade ends, put on a CD copy and raise a toast to the douchebags, and to the end of the music business as we knew it before.
2. Jason Isbell – Southeastern (2013)
I’ll never forget where I was when I listened to this album for the first time. I was on I-80 in Iowa, heading west for a big tour. It was early in the evening, on one of those summer days when sunshine and rain are simultaneously occupying the sky. When an album starts with a song like “Cover Me Up”, it’s bound to capture my attention. But as I listened through the hard-hitting trifecta of “Traveling Alone,” “Elephant,” and “Flying Over Water,” I realized I was hearing greatness. The musical range, poetic lyricism, and emotional impact of this record launched Jason into the stratosphere, and the world is better for it.
“Cover Me Up” has become a modern standard, covered by everyone from Zac Brown to Morgan Wallen to some guy on The Voice. It’s ironic, because it was the one song on this album that I always thought was strictly off-limits. When a man spends the better part of his adult life in the throes of addiction, recovers from it thanks to the love of a woman who is every-bit his equal in talent and strength, and puts all of that into one of the truest love songs ever written…I won’t ever cover it, because no one could ever sing it like Jason.
1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (2015)
For the uninitiated, the best phrase to describe Sufjan is relentlessly creative. He has soundtracked films, composed symphonies, scored ballets, and he plays dozens of different instruments. He has released a number of brilliant works over the years, but nothing can possibly prepare you for the devastating beauty of this album.
The musical format is pure folk, dominated by acoustic guitar and a high pitched, mandolin-esque instrument called a guitalin. There are no drums on this record. The subject matter is deeply, painfully personal; the death of Sufjan’s mother, and all the gory details of their troubled relationship. It feels practically invasive, as though you are an uninvited spectator bearing witness to the most intimate moments of life, death, and everything in between. And that’s the essence of folk music, right?
The difference with Carrie & Lowell is that it isn’t someone else’s pain, as is often the case with ancient folk songs passed down from past generations through newer artists. This is the trauma of one man, laid bare for you to partake in. None of that would matter if the music weren’t great. Fortunately for us, it IS. If you set aside the lyrics and just studied the melodies and harmonies contained within, you would still find this album to be a masterpiece. To me, it sets a new standard for folk music. It’s an easy choice for the album of the decade in my book.
Honorable Mentions: 13-24, in no particular order.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
The Black Keys – Brothers (2010)
Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto (2011)
The Highwomen – The Highwomen (2019)
I’m With Her – See You Around (2018)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (2017)
John Mayer – Born and Raised (2014)
John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness (2018)
Jon Foreman – The Wonderlands (2015)
Lake Street Dive – Bad Self Portraits (2014)
Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues (2015)
Ray LaMontagne – God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise (2010)