This is a continuation of records that meant the world to me in the 2010s; if you haven’t read part one, it will definitely help this make a lot more sense. But if you don’t want to right now, this is my version of a “best albums of the decade list” through a personal lens of learning to reconnect to music. The list reflects the ways in which music can help us process our experiences, hopes, and anxieties; it’s also a list of pretty freaking great albums.
It’s ordered in the sequence I discovered them, and we last left our heroes after Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the 2016 election.
Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings (RCA / Vanner, 2016)
It turns out there were two platinum-selling sixth albums in 2016 that were created by women going through marital struggles. The one you are probably less likely to know is by Lambert, who put together 3 LPs worth of songs into a concept album written after her marriage ended. I can’t think of a better songwriter active today, and the long format of this album allows her to put that on full display – ranging from the glibly spirited vintage-tinged rocker “Ugly Lights,” the classic honky tonk of “To Learn Her,” the wistfully hopeful “Runnin’ Just in Case,” and many points in between and beyond.
Simply put, she’s an expert storyteller – with an ear for detail and the ability to conjure a state of mind by setting a scene. It’s these stories the songs tell – of knowing you’re a barfly (“the girl bartenders hate / the one that doesn’t need another one”), the pain of loving someone without really knowing who she is, of being weary of a life of constant motion that feels like an endless stream of endings – that make this album so rewarding to get lost in.
My jam: Tough to pull one out of a triple album that luxuriates in the wide scope its length provides. But I can’t think of a better introduction than “Runnin’ Just in Case” – the song she chose to start the album with.
Priests – Nothing Feels Natural (Sister Polygon, 2017)
Released a week after Trump’s inauguration, I’ll always connect this album (and band) to the voices some of us either discovered or reclaimed in that time. It’s tough to really characterize what it sounds like – they’re fluent in a myriad of post-punk styles, and I’m reminded of the anarchic joy of the Dutch experimentalist co-conspirators The Ex and Dog-Faced Hermans, but also the gleefully dance-oriented music of the Rapture, and the list could go on. My guess is that they’re music nerds, too.
But that doesn’t really capture what makes Priests who they are, which in my mind is what they have to say and how they say it – prescient observations about injustice in the world and the men who can make it insufferable. Whereas the Eighties version of this kind of protest could veer towards a clunky, dour didacticism, Priests are way more artful, and sometimes it feels like they’re reading my mind – a mind that expanded in 2017 and found in Priests music a relatable, vivid representation of what many were trying to get our heads around.
To this day, I still think about their anti-mansplaining manifesto “Suck” all the time at work (“Why do I always have to be the police to get you to shut up when I speak?”), and seeing them perform it live in front of joyous, heaving mass of humanity and hope at Brooklyn Bazaar in New York City remains one of my favorite live moments of the decade.
My jam: “Suck” – check it out here, as performed that night – this is Priests as I’ll always remember them.
Sully – Escape (Keysounds, 2017)
I discovered this album at 2 Bridges in New York City; if you have a particular kind of ear – open to all the sounds that we can call music, no matter what instrumentation or style – you might just be able to find all of the records you’d ever want there. One of their strengths is a carefully edited electronic music section, which NYC has been sorely missing since the demise of Kim’s Video on St Marks Place (one of the only places you could pull grime 12”es back in the day – thanks to the buyer, Craig “I Sound” Willingham).
And if your appreciation for electronic music encompasses jungle, drum ’n bass, and grime (or new sounds, rhythms, or textures in general) – this album is for you. UK electronic music (that you’d find in a club) evolves at a frightening pace with loads of mini-genres (b-line, anyone?) so it’s not that common to find someone who digs into the past to create something new, but that’s exactly what Sully’s done here – mixing the ruff spirit of jungle, the urban swing of garage, the atmospherics of certain mid 90s drum ’n bass producers like T.Power. If you’ve never heard of any of those things, this would be a great place to dive in further.
My jam: The bare, menacingly grimey “Assembly 1,” and its lurching counterpuntal beats.
Lorde – Melodrama (Universal, 2017)
I listened to this album (a Christmas gift!) a ton in 2018 – so much that I did that whole teenage thing where you have phases of different songs being your favorite, all in the course of six months. Which I suppose is appropriate to its origin, the result of a short span in its creator’s life during which she grew up fast. It seems she was up to a young person’s life of falling in love, heartbreak, partying – those extremes that seem so magnified when you’re going through them for the first times. But if you heard this album without that context (or even just read the song titles), you’d probably think it was a sad one – even the falling in love parts have a down element.
Which I suppose is fair, but to me the album is about loneliness in its many different forms – becoming alone; being alone even when you’re with others (because they’re having fun and you’re not); feeling alone because you’re crushed out on someone but being benignly stalker-y about it. And it’s true that many of us resist being alone – but I don’t think it makes it sad, not all the time. I’d have to guess that many people would rather be alone than with a boor, and some are just drawn to it. And I think this is a perfect album for those people.
But even if that’s not your 24×7 thing, it has some really potent songs – like “Liability,” a song about the need to find self-love that’s as heartbreaking as it is empowering. Or “Louvre,” about the heady, disorienting experience of falling in love, a love that feels so big it stands as tall as a monument.
Her songs often contain these kinds of unexpected mixes – of realness and grandeur, of sorrow and pride – which aren’t something I had ever expected from pop and never fail to knock me over. And that revelation changed the way I listened to music for the rest of the decade.
My jam: I sort of live and die by “Liability,” but for variety’s sake let’s go with “Louvre.” Remember what I said about having a different favorite song?
Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life (Interscope / Polydor, 2017)
+ Norman Fucking Rockwell (Interscope, Polydor, 2019)
At this point, the question about Lana Del Rey being a serious artist isn’t even a question. And honestly, I’m not even a particular fan of more than a third of Lust for Life. But the third that’s on, forget about it. I struggled to find a way to explain the immense gravitational pull of those songs, and as always, Ms. Crossfire nailed it. Some singer / songwriters are astute observers of their subjects, some are great writers, and some have a voice that draws you close. But Lana Del Rey embodies what her songs are about. There’s no difference between her voice, what she’s singing about, and the song itself. It’s like she is the purest form of whatever she’s singing. And when that gets paired with a song like “Heroin,” it can make you feel like the earth is falling away from underneath your feet.
So it’s unsurprising that I cannot at all separate the lyrics of Norman Fucking Rockwell from its music (co-written with Jack Antonoff, the guy that’s everywhere). The mood, the words, the sound – they all mix together in a haze. She once (in)famously stated, “to write about me is nothing like what it is to be with me,” eliding the difference between self and music. When your music is nothing short of living within a version of consciousness you committed to record, what more is there to say?
My jams: Every time “Heroin” comes on, I stop what I’m doing and everything else just drops out. “Happiness is a butterfly” is a deep cut off of NFR, but a great one – and an interesting counterpoint to The National’s “Pink Rabbits” (as featured in part one).
Faten Kanaan – Pleiade Hex 6 (Polytechnic Youth, 2017)
I don’t know too much about Faten Kanaan – she lives in Brooklyn but seldom performs there (it seems), and has quietly produced a number of records that can be distressingly difficult to find in the US. But it’s well worth the effort because they’re uncommonly beautiful. She’s apparently a vintage (analogue) synth nut, and conjures a deeply textured dreaminess that I place in direct lineage (and peership) with artists like Popol Vuh and Klauz Schulze as they existed in the 1970s, lost in a cosmic reverie.
According to the album’s Bandcamp page, this album is “loosely inspired by medieval canons / rounds and Baroque structures” – and to my ears there is a definite (small “r”) romantic minimalism in there as well. Basically, it combines two of my first experimental / out there music loves (the aforementioned Seventies stuff and musical Minimalists) and you should all try getting lost in its soothing grace.
My jam: “Aventurine” is steeped in the same haze of gorgeous ambience-as-melody as the rest of the album, and the surprise actual melody isn’t so much gilding the lily as the most beautiful one in a field of them.
Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (Darkroom / Interscope, 2019)
There is a definite take that 2019 was Billie Eilish’s year and we were just along for the ride (such is her ubiquity that a bunch of strangers heard an announcement she recorded for the Los Angeles International Airport in January and all just kind of looked around to make sure everyone was hearing the same thing, chuckling among themselves). I listened obsessively to the album’s teaser (“Bury a Friend”) since it was released in January, and the album did not disappoint. It’s like the Soundcloud nerds took over the pop charts and damned if they’re giving it back. Each song is weird, perfect, and true – and taken as a whole, it feels like both a culmination and encapsulation of the ten year ride we’ve just finished and the anxiety many of us feel as we ponder the weeks, months, years, and decade ahead.
My jam: “Bury a Friend,” obvs.
Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time (Capitol, 2013)
At the very end of the year, I discovered this odd gem of a record – it apparently inspired a cult-like devotion but I was late to the party. I’m sure someone had the idea it could be a chart-topping pop record, but maybe it was just a shade or ten too rough around the edges. Beyond that, it most likely doesn’t fit in with many male conceptions of what a pop record by a woman should sound (or look) like, which just goes to show how long we’ve come since it came out in 2013 – just ask Billie Eilish.
But it’s the inside that counts (as we like to say), which in this case is joyous and free – reminding me of the high octane, razor-edged, exhilarating music that Primal Scream was making circa their stone-cold classic XTRMNTR – the impression of a nightclub through the lens of pharmaceuticals that simultaneously sharpen and blur your view. I think it’s become evident that Ferreira has a pretty non-linear creative process and that she and Capitol Records make awkward dancing partners – we’re all still waiting for its follow-up among many false starts.
Listening to this album now, I picture a fertile imagination processing a kaleidoscope of experiences – scary and thrilling alike. I sometimes wonder what kind of life this record might have had if it had come out last year, instead of a year when the Billboard top three albums were by Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, and One Direction – and you couldn’t escape “Blurred Lines” if you wanted to (hey, it wasn’t for lack of trying). Now we have Eilish, Lil Nas X, Ariana Grande, and Halsey. And whatever Ferreira stood for, I can’t but help feel we sort of got there, in the end.
My jam: The delirious “Omanko,” as if shoegaze’s lexicon started with the nihilistic punk group Suicide.
This decade in music reminded me of something important, that one of music’s superpowers is to reflect back a reality that you’re experiencing, in a way that can make more sense of it than when you’re actually living through it. It’s like being a wiser, disembodied spirit watching yourself in one of those movies – seeing yourself with perspective, and living it at the same time.
When I sat down to write this, I started with a list of records that resonate with me, but I really didn’t know what this would become. I had the idea to reflect on the past, but realized it’s not quite over – there still seems something unresolved. Sometimes something isn’t over until you see the new thing replacing it.
So here we stand in 2020, with so many important things ahead of us – hands stretched forward, disappearing into a dense fog of uncertainty.
To define the past we must define the future.
And every ending creates a new beginning.