I’ve been on some sort of OCD-crazed purging tip lately, which led me to go through my box of ticket stubs I’ve managed to hold on to since the early 2000s -physical reminders of the two decades of formative moments that have now placed me at the threshold of yet another new decade.
What’s been the soundtrack to my life over the years? A lot of the familiar, then, as the years advance, a bunch of new names. But what’s stayed consistent for the past 20 years is that I’ve listened to what I love. Yes, there was a lot of Britney and Christina in high school, but at that same time it was also Elliott Smith, Aimee Mann and Atmosphere. And so on.
The list below seems like the perfect summary of not only the year or decade, but my very deep relationship with music since the beginning. A look back for a glimpse of what’s to come. Enjoy!
20. Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet
Andrew Bird is one of those artists that had been there from my musical beginning, his music providing a nice warm Sherpa sweater refuge over the ups and downs of life.
The music of My Finest Work Yet is no different. Just Mr. Bird being Mr. Bird, but this time his often-complex lyrics take a somewhat political undertone during times could definitely benefit from his perspective on things.
Favorite track: “Archipelago”
19. Sandy (Alex G) – House of Sugar
Admittedly this is the first Sandy (Alex G) album I’ve really been able to get a handle on, and I’m so glad I did. It’s approachable without being approachable at all. Unassuming while bold. And I like that!
Favorite track: “Gretel”
18. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
One of those ticket stubs was from Sharon Van Etten’s show at The Cedar in February 2012. Having only released Tramp a few days earlier, the mood was joyful, loose, engaging. But after all that, she ended the show with one her most affecting songs, “Love More.” I remember that because I was completely floored. The dark of that oblong room, my friend Megan standing next to me, knowing that she was experiencing the same emotions I was. That’s what I love about music’s effect on memories – it cements them. The songs of Remind Me Tomorrow have that power and then some, so thanks Sharon!!
Favorite track: “Jupiter 4”
17. The Tallest Man On Earth – I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream.
I spent the majority of 2019 making the same face Kristian Matsson makes on the cover of I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream. Is he tired? Relieved? Over it thinking ‘wtf’ in his head? At peace with something? All of that or none of the above? Well same!!!!
Favorite track: “I’m a Stranger Now”
16. Blood Orange – Angel’s Pulse
Technically a mix tape, but that doesn’t matter. Dev Hynes does it once again, even if this is a collection of material left on the recording room floor. What a treat! The music of Blood Orange has been interwoven with my memories of attending Pitchfork Music Festival since 2012; a reunion of close friends celebrated with some of the best music year after year. I think I’ve seen Blood Orange four times at the festival, which is why listening to his music feels like coming home.
Favorite track: “Happiness”
15. Big Thief – Two Hands
Holy hell. It’s like, what excellent Big Thief album do you put on your list, because we got two to pick from. For me, it was Two Hands.
Favorite track: “Not”
14. Angelo De Augustine – Tomb
A lovely, quiet album when most of the year had me just wanting to tell everyone “shhhhhhhhh!” Also sad!
Favorite track: “A Good Man’s Light”
13. Billie Eilish – WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?
Her show at Red Rocks looked like Paris Fashion Week. How exciting for the future of pop music! How jealous are you of the teenagers who get Billie as their pop star?
Favorite track: “listen before i go”
12. Ariana Grande – thank u, next
If everyone could be as emotionally mature as Ms. Grande and take a shit year/luck/whatever and respond not with venom but with grace, charm, wit and a wink, the world would be a much better place.
Favorite track: “needy”
11. Thom Yorke – ANIMA
In 2006 I found myself “on the farm” at Bonnaroo at the ripe old age of 20. The Eraser had leaked. In the company of other Radiohead fans, we played that damn CD a lot, but personally I was always left wanting a little…more. ANIMA no longer sounds like music coming from a side project – this is Thom Yorke fully-formed as his own thing, and it’s fantastic.
Favorite track: “Impossible Knots”
10. James Blake – Assume Form
James Blake first shook me to life in May of 2011. He played the goddamn 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. Like, scooze? In what world does that happen? Anyway, I’ve been a big fan ever since and, like many of the other artists on this list, Assume Form is peak James Blake, what everything else was leading up to.
Favorite track: “Into the Red”
9. Kevin Morby – Oh My God
I truly cherish this man and especially this album of his. The comparisons to Dylan are earned – this is a rollicking, spiritual, tour de force of an album.
Favorite track: “Hail Mary”
8. Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
I mean maybe because it has Titanic in the title but despite that fact…another wow!
Favorite track: “Everyday”
7. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile
I had the pleasure of taking a driving trip down to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, shortly after this album was released, and I couldn’t think of a better landscape to be surrounded by to soak this album in.
Favorite track: “Fantasma Vaga”
6. Solange – When I Get Home
Where to begin with Ms. Solange? I was supposed to see her for the first time in 2013 at The Bottom Lounge in Chicago. And then she canceled the show. Then she rescheduled and waved to me and my friend Liza from the stage and it was a moment. She has since graced Pitchfork Music Festival twice, in 2013 and 2017. Both were chic, especially the 2017 performance where we all had a seat at the table and then my friend Mimi fainted during “Losing You” (iconic) and we had to carry her out of the crowd!
Favorite track: “Almeda”
5. Bon Iver – i,i
While nothing might be more impactful to me personally than the somewhat surprise release and Kid A-esque turn of 22, A Million, i,i, see’s Justin Vernon blowing the fable of his founding wide open, inviting some of the best names working in music today to create an album that is peak Bon Iver. Justin’s music will always sound like home to me, even if Wisconsin technically gets to claim that right. Anyway, I feel incredibly lucky to be living at the same time this man is making music – there’s nothing else quite like it that speaks to my soul in a way that says, “this is for you.”
Favorite track: “Naeem”
4. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
I received a ‘hot tip’ in Chicago in October 2012 to show up early for Dark Dark Dark’s performance at Schubas because an up-and-comer, Angel Olsen, would be opening. And here we are now, me, alone at the Gothic Theatre in Colorado this past Sunday, witnessing the live translation of All Mirrors. And then I died!
Favorite track: “Tonight”
3. Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
Vampire Weekend have transformed into a jam band, and they’ve never sounded better! PS – favorite Red Rocks show of the year. I’d never seen them before. It was 25 degrees and snowing. And they played for 3 hours. Good tf night.
Favorite track: “Unbearably White”
2. FKA twigs – MAGDALENE
MAGDALENE came out on what would be a literal 24-hour travel day from Rome to Denver, via Amsterdam and Detroit. Yah. Groggily tapping play before takeoff on the first leg of the journey, I was simply not prepared for what I was about to hear. I’d listened to lead single “Cellophane” maybe once or twice, never finding myself in the right place or mood – so why not start by being trapped in a metal tube for a day?!
By the time I got to “mirrored heart” somewhere over the Alps, I was completely basically in a state of shock. What the fuck was I listening to? How was this album so brilliant? Needless to say, “mirrored heart” and the rest of MAGDALENE stayed on repeat for the large majority of those 24 hours. I’m so glad this album exists.
Favorite track: “mirrored heart”
1. Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
The first time I heard “The greatest,” I couldn’t understand what was happening. Aside from “Venice Bitch” and “Mariners Apartment Complex,” which were practically a year before NFR, I had no idea what to expect from this album sonically. Lana has bobbed and weaved between folk, trip-hop and pop over her career. I’ve truly enjoyed all of it, but “The greatest” just hit different. How could a song named “The greatest” be like, one of the greatest songs I’d ever heard?
Norman. Fucking. Rockwell!!!!!! I’d add even more exclamation marks to the title if I could. I can’t do any better writing about this album than those that do this professionally have, but I will say this: I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, probably because I’ve felt like one for most of my life. How Lana has triumphed now in the most quiet yet self-assured way possible over the past decade makes me beyond happy. Even if she doesn’t care about (or need) the accolades, they’ve been a long time coming. And I hope this means even more people take a moment to not only discover but spend time with her music if they haven’t already. NFR is the triumph of the year / decade. A time capsule of feelings and moods for my generation and those that follow. Guess that I’m burned out after all.
Favorite tracks: “Fuck it I love you,” “The greatest,” “California,” “Happiness is a butterfly”