Last week, I posted part one of my Best Albums of the Half Decade list. Today: it’s the more important half!
Don’t forget: this only considers 2010-2014, so Sufjan and S-K will have to wait until December to get their listed praises (this aside excepted). Also: if you would rather read this as “Matt’s Favorite Albums,” you wouldn’t be wrong. I don’t have an averaged poll from a staff of people.
Related to that: what did I leave out? I’m sure I missed something (like that Girls record in 2011). What incredible music should I put on my Decade list in 2019? Is there a good reason to discredit a pick on my list?
Go yell in the comments, or find me on Twitter! I love to see other people excited about music, I want to find more great sounds!
Thanks for reading, and here’s the list!
10. The Unfazed by Dolorean (2011)
“Quiet confidence” is probably an overused trope in music reviews. It feels apt with Dolorean anyway. The songs on The Unfazed never yell, operating in a mid-volume area. Guitars are acoustic, clean, or slightly twangy, pianos are plentiful, and drum fills skitter along without distracting. It’s hard to pin genre exactly here; you could do worse than saying “classic-, folk-, country-rock” and then triangulating. The album takes the best notes of each to form a beautiful whole.
Everything is bound nicely by the earnest tone of bandleader Al James. His smooth voice cuts even the most cynical of ears, and brings you into his storytelling style. There’s enough specificity in his tales to make them come alive, to let them dig under your skin. It’s a shame the band ended after this album. Hopefully we’ll get to hear more from James in the future.
09. The King is Dead by The Decemberists (2011)
Do you like Colin Meloy? Do you like REM-style ringing guitars? If you answered yes to both questions, you already own The King is Dead and love it. It is that combination suggested that makes the album so enjoyable. The Decemberists continue to ply their charming, bookish trade and augment things with a dose of universal guitar delight. Heck, three of the songs even have Peter Buck around to bring his authentic tone.
Douglas Wolk of Rolling Stone called the sound here “rustic,” and I think that’s a perfect descriptor. King feels as close to pure folk as the band had been, pushing away from the prog indulgence of The Hazards of Love. The style is simplified, but not simple and fits the band well.
08. Let England Shake by PJ Harvey (2011)
Anger and nervous disappointment in equal doses form the core of Let England Shake. It’s an anti-war album throughout. It also avoids any sense of pretentious self-interest by being devoutly earnest and musically ambitious.
Haunting moments make England stay long after its 40 minute playtime. “The Glorious Land” opens with the bugle call “Assembly” and then examines the horrors of war atop the militaristic tone. “The Words That Maketh Murder” ends with a twisted reference to “Summertime Blues.” Harvey asks, “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” It’s done pitifully, as if all options are exhausted and problems never solved. “Bitter Branches” ends with faux-anthemic repetition. “Wave goodbye” is shouted over and over. With closer listening, you realize the waving bitter branches belong to wives of soldiers, spouses of the men sent to die. It’s stark and effective messaging.
07. This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem (2010)
LCD Soundsystem set an impossible bar with Sound of Silver. Catchy songs, self-aware lyrics, brilliant sound, and the best song of its decade… how do you follow that? Luckily, James Murphy knows better than I. LCD pushed their sound even deeper, creating a second masterpiece. From the outset, the careful timing of “Dance Yrself Clean” shows the range of strength: slow build and reflection sometimes, explosive power when needed.
Over the final 2/3 of the record, LCD works magic: they manage to produce a string of songs that could go head to head with their previous heights. “All I Want” and “I Can Change” have the same kind of emotion and regret that made Silver so memorable. “Pow Pow” is a rambling wonder from the same cloth as “Losing My Edge.” Murphy and company left the band on an incredible high point.
06. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (2010)
With The Suburbs, Arcade Fire took the core of their first two records and applied it to an album-wide theme. Luckily, they don’t get lost in the details or the execution. Yes, The Suburbs reflects on modern life and all that sprawl. More important: it keeps the focus on the personal. Blondie-clone “Sprawl II” is a towering triumph, and yet those moments when Regine Chassagne slips into a coo tell a story. She whispers a memory: “Sat under the swings and kissed in the dark.” It’s a spine-tingling moment as the synth dances around her.
The album’s balance is wonderful. “Suburban War” is my favorite track, opening as a contained song with meandering and quiet guitar. Toward the end, the distortion kicks in and the roof blows off. It’s a perfect encapsulation: The Suburbs is a quiet work when it needs to be, has the grand arena scale of its predecessors, and never outstays its welcome.
05. Trouble Will Find Me by The National (2013)
Trouble might be the most accessible version of The National. Luckily, that doesn’t cut out any of the layers of sound nor the moody brilliance we’ve come to love from the band. Heck, the whole thing opens with dread and regret. “I should live in salt for leaving you,” Matt Berninger laments.
The album swirls and spirals from there. You’ll get rowdier fare like “Sea of Love,” where snare fills erupt like gunfire and the coda boils. Tension dominates in both “Graceless” and “Humiliation” built from the rapid drums and bouncing bass at the core of both. I suppose you could worry about The National getting stagnant someday. For now, this as further refinement of a wonderful palette, and I’ll take all of it you’ve got.
04. They Want My Soul by Spoon (2014)
What are your feelings on rock? Do you like it? Congrats, you’ll like Spoon. Seriously, that’s the primary requirement. Even if you dive into the minimal construction description, you’re left with a question: is the skeleton strong enough to stand? Jim Eno’s propulsive drums, the right distortion level on guitar, and the best voice in music all add up to an incredible whole. Soul might lose some luster if considered beside the rest of the Spoon catalog. Thankfully, that’s only because you’re left wondering if any one album stands out. (It’s a frustrating exercise. They’re all spectacular.)
Left to stand on its own, Soul is one of the greatest rock records of the past 5 years. “Rent I Pay” is a romping reintroduction for the band. The piano and bass on “Rainy Taxi” have teeth that’ll stick in long after your first listen. That buzzsaw guitar in “Knock Knock Knock” will leave an electric shock. They Want My Soul is further confirmation that nobody does it better than Spoon.
03. High Violet by The National (2010)
Imagine turning existential darkness into a liquid, then dripping the liquid into a highball glass full of scotch. Go set that on a highrise balcony at dusk in New York City, as the camera pans from beverage to the furrowed brow and slightly graying hair of the man sipping. Okay, now imagine the soundtrack to that scene and you’ve got High Violet.
That’s as self-indulgent a description as you’ll ever see (sorry). It also reads like a metaphor for the sound. The National have so perfectly mastered the aural feeling of dread, and it’s on High Violet that they finally caught me in their net. And I understand any reservations the unconverted might have. I thought the band was boring for so long.
Now I know it’s in the details. The key: the echoing guitars of “Conversation 16.” They build this spacious, empty atmosphere that matches the hope for escape vocalized by Matt Berninger. It’s also the drums. They’re a constant force on every album by The National. You’ll find the focus odd after listening to anything else. Eventually, it all clicks. The spartan strikes that open “Anyone’s Ghost” set the tone and create a foundation. All the fills and flourish pop against the barebones start.
02. Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend (2013)
Vampire Weekend have improved with every new album. It’s an impressive feat considering their lofty beginnings. The band evolved into deeper sounds, and another VW pick (Contra) sits at #11 on this list for good reason. That albums is a more mature view on the world while still retaining that catchy pop instinct from their debut. Modern Vampires of the City blows that out of the water.
What makes Modern so good? The individual songs are all great, yes. The true key is the thematic execution across the whole album. Modern Vampires is a meditation on aging and everything it brings: life, God, death, and love. It sounds ambitious on paper, maybe even a bit pretentious. The execution is spot-on. “Diane Young” is a pop-perfect lead single with noisy horns and reflection on death. “Nobody knows what the future holds, it’s bad enough just getting old,” exclaims Ezra Koenig.
God is the center of attention through much of Modern. “Unbelievers” tackles faith directly, asking “Want a little warmth, but who’s gonna save a little warmth for me?” “Ya Hey” acts as one-way conversation from the band to the creator, full of curious observations about modern interaction with religion.
And then there’s “Hannah Hunt.” It’s the most important song on the album, helping to create a dramatic sweep to all 12 tracks. Prior to “Hannah,” it’s rising action. After, it’s the come-down. Within “Hannah Hunt” is the eruption, an emotional explosion centered around a decaying relationship. “If I can’t trust you then dammit Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer.”
01. Celebration Rock by Japandroids (2012)
Celebration Rock is easy enough to unpack. Hell, the title isn’t lying: it’s an expression of bliss through rock music. But we know better. “Celebration” has nuance. Celebration can be a slight fist pump at your desk when your boss is pleased. It can be a nod at a younger sibling when they pass a hard test. Maybe it’s that momentary sigh of relief as key unlocks apartment door to start the weekend.
Japandroids think much bigger. They’re celebrating life, youth, vitality, friendship, universal human things. And they celebrate with a grand finale explosion of fireworks over British Columbia in the heart of the summer. In that way, Celebration Rock exists as an interesting complement Modern Vampires. Instead of reserved introspection, the Canadian band yells like to the heavens, hands you a beer, and asks you to sing the chorus right along with them.
This isn’t to say that Celebration Rock is a simple album. A better word is “primal.” The guitar riffs thrash and drum lines blast with real force. Lead singer Brian King puts his whole being into lines, straining his vocal chords to share his words.
Every song here is trying to be an anthem, and every one of the eight pulls it off. “The House That Heaven Built” gets much of the attention for its instant-classic rally cry (“And if they try to slow you down / Tell them all to go to hell”). On Celebration Rock, the memorable lines happen throughout. “We hell like hell to the heavens,” “Boldly surrender / To me and to the night,” “Give me younger us,” they’re all action songs built on action cries.
The other great hook, the reason to buy in: those guitars. This is as passionate a case for guitar rock as I can imagine today. The riffs and solo phrases are the perfect companion to the shouted lyrics, the bliss of it all. It’s hard to think of a similar impact from any other instrumentation.
Celebration Rock is an incredible joy to hear (especially turned loud in a car), and it’s my pick for the best album of the half-decade.