Hello! I wrote way, way too much for this, so I’m not going to say much. In fact, this is it for an introduction. I just hope you read at least some of it, that’s all. Thank you!
Rooftops — A Forest of Polarity (2010)
Maybe the most obscure record on my list, this came my way through a series of connections: I booked a show for my North Dakota friends In Ink Please, they brought a band called Snow Cuts Glass, one of the people in that band was a guy named Johnny, a few years later Johnny started a band called Rooftops and they put out this record. WHEW. Anyway, if it hadn’t been for all those connections, I never would discovered A Forest of Polarity, a terrific joyride of what I guess you could call math rock since it has lots of off-kilter structures and twinkly guitar finger-tapping. It’s mostly instrumental, but when Johnny pops in on a few songs to sing some lovely vocals, then the emo-math rock vibes get truly triumphant. Since it came out nine years ago, I’ve listened to this record at least a couple times a year, and honestly I could do more and would never get sick of it.
Young Widows — In and Out of Youth and Lightness (2011)
These guys took a huge artistic turn from their previous record to this one. Much less raucous and noisy, Young Widows all of a sudden were brooding and way weirder, and I was in love. I found heavy inspiration from this record when I started writing songs for my band at the time, Tyborn Jig. I knew we couldn’t quite pull off the soundscapes and effects and whatnot, but Young Widows showed me that a few people in a room, armed only with guitars and drums, could make bold artistic statements and create sounds that represented the vision of the band. Whether people listened or not was almost beside the point. The drive was to invent.
Fiona Apple — The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)
Fiona’s most powerful record is her most minimal — she and her collaborator Charlie Drayton are the only two credited performers on the whole thing. And it sounds like no more than two people, as it’s mostly Fiona and her piano, with found percussion and random noises thrown in. There aren’t a lot of conventionally catchy songs, certainly not in the vein of Fiona’s older stuff. But it lived in my brain all year, and it still does for a bit after every revisiting. I locked in with this record so hard because it is a woman expressing herself so freely, with absolutely no regard for anyone’s expectations, and yet still making a masterpiece.
Propagandhi — Failed States (2012)
I don’t love this as much as the other Propagandhi record that came out this decade, but still, Failed States is here because Propagandhi are gods to me. One thing I didn’t quite realize back in 2012 was how “Unscripted Moment” had a profound effect on me by making me realize that I truly wanted to have children. I had been slightly on the fence about it, partially because bringing a person into this horrible world seemed cruel, but Chris Hannah’s depiction of his little bit of joy from parenting, in the face of insanity, is what put me over the edge. Someday my kids will have to thank Propagandhi for making them exist.
Kendrick Lamar — good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
It actually took me until this past summer to fully appreciate this record. I listened to it once in 2013 while raking leaves, and I liked it, but never followed up. I am a fool, because holy crap is this record just amazing. Kendrick is proof that you can be an enormous pop star and still create achingly emotive art that reflects grim reality. good kid, m.A.A.d city is obviously the record Kendrick had been formulating in his head his whole life, so an entire lifetime’s worth of pain and wisdom come through, in the form of wildly inventive songs that still hit your musical brain in all the conventional places. It’s hard to pick a standout moment, but the end of the first verse of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” leaves me speechless and choked up every time.
Deafheaven — Sunbather (2013)
I am still endlessly thrilled when I listen to Sunbather. It conducts a high wire act unlike anything hardly any other band could pull off, by blending black metal, shoegaze, screamo and alternative rock into one seamless package that still carries seriousness and meaning. The year after this came out I saw Deafheaven in St. Louis, where they played Sunbather in its entirety. They were flawless. I grinned from ear to ear the whole time. My stepdad came along out of curiousity, and even he liked it, and his favorite bands are U2 and the Steve Miller Band. That’s a show I will never forget.
RVIVR — The Beauty Between (2013)
In the time after I fell in love with super-earnest pop-punkers RVIVR, I came to discover that they have a rather large fanbase of teenagers, or at least large for an obscure punk band. This might scare off some listeners less comfortable in their own skin, but I justify this for a couple reasons. For one, RVIVR is not like My Chemical Romance or some other shit I hate. Their songs are wonderful and they play with grit and passion (I’m sure MCR does too, whatever, don’t yell at me). And secondly, their lyrics are about accepting yourself for the imperfect person you are and kicking ass anyway, and I suppose that’s a message every teenager in the world needs to hear. So yes, I’ll keep loving RVIVR no matter who else loves them, thank you very much.
A Wilhelm Scream — Partycrasher (2013)
Having been completely obsessed with their 2007 record Career Suicide, I was ready to love whatever A Wilhelm Scream put out next, and I was very lucky to not have to talk myself into loving a disappointment. Partycrasher works in the same lane of dizzying, intricately-played pop-punk with a hard edge, but Nuno Pereira’s voice changed a little and there are a few more fleshed-out melodic parts that help the record feel like a step forward. I’ll just never get enough of an opening like that of “Ice Man Left a Trail,” where the guitars are absolutely ballistic yet totally grounded in a memorable tune. That’s all I’m asking for from music, so why can’t it always be like that?
Jason Isbell — Southeastern (2013)
Despite Jason Isbell blowing up in the years after this record’s release, writing a song for that overblown A Star is Born movie that I probably will never see, and becoming an icon to fellow bearded dads clad in plaid shirts, I still think Isbell is a generational talent who we’re incredibly lucky to have. We need songwriters who cut to the core of our beings and show us what’s inside, and Isbell does that on a regular basis. With Southeastern, Isbell gave power to recovering substance abusers, raised awareness of incest victims, extolled the virtues of finding your soulmate, and in “Elephant,” the record’s best song (and maybe the entire decade’s best song), gave voice to the futility and loneliness inherent in battling cancer. A guy like Jason Isbell became so popular because everyone can find a piece of themselves in his songs.
Rhye — Woman (2013)
Maybe the biggest outlier in this whole thing, Rhye was a chance discovery for me in I think Pitchfork’s end-of-year list, which usually is like, 90% stuff I don’t give a damn about. Somehow the description of Rhye sounded interesting enough to me — a mysterious group with little known about them, so little in fact, that people thought the singer was a woman and months later found out it was actually a man singing in impeccable falsetto. The music itself is like an 80’s R&B group playing at whisper-volume and making the sexiest sounds known to man AND woman. Without getting personal, I just need you to know that this is a very sexy record, and having it in your life will make everything sexier. Want me to say “sex” more? I thought so. SEX SEX SEX SEX SEXY SEXY SEX.
The Hotelier — Home, Like NoPlace is There (2014)
In my first review of this record, I wrote that I felt weird for liking such a youthful emo record. Five years later, that weirdness has subsided and I just think Home is one of the best rock records not just of this decade, but of this century. It might be unfair to label music like this as merely being emo, but this Hotelier record in particular has that true feel of emo, where from one moment to the next it feels like the band might explode. Even people in their mid-20’s have lived through some shit and come out the other end with some lessons, and these guys are a prime example of it. And also as I wrote five years ago, “An Introduction to the Album” remains one of the most stunning songs I’ve ever heard, and when Christian Holden yells “FUCK” off-mic, my body feels like it’s momentarily floating.
Against Me! — Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014)
It was such a relief to have two consecutive so-so Against Me! records be followed up by such a roaring reclamation of artistic intent like this record. The fierceness of old was back, everything felt like it mattered more. Oh, and Laura Jane Grace had come out as a trans woman and wrote a record centered around that experience. She can make fun of herself and she doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her, but she still wants you to know it’s a big goddamn deal to finally be who she wants to be. Listening to Transgender will always remind me that there might be a future in which everyone has that freedom they need to be who they are, we’ll just need to kick and scream and maybe hammer on guitars to get it.
Sun Kil Moon — Benji (2014)
It can be difficult to recommend a record like Benji to your friends when you know what kind of a toll it will take on them. It’s not easy breezy listening. You can’t really jam it at the gym (I tried recently and fighting back tears while lifting weights is not for me). To fully appreciate what Mark Kozelek, the man behind Sun Kil Moon, has done here, you have to carve out time and just sit with the record. It must wash over you entirely. You have to ruminate on the death of Kozelek’s second cousin from a freak accident involving an aerosol can. You have to “take a moment to think about the kids who died in Newtown.” You have to hear how much Kozelek loves his mom and dad, and if that wasn’t enough, you also have to hear intimate details of his first few sexual experiences. I know that all sounds like too much, and perhaps too specific to one man’s life, but I believe that specificity is the key to universality. These are human songs about human emotions and events, and they’re played with disturbing clarity and forthrightness. Benji left such a mark on me that I rarely revisit it because it opens those old emotional wounds, but when I do, I think maybe I should open those wounds more often.
Worriers — Imaginary Life (2015)
I maybe was only vaguely aware of the importance of pronouns within the trans community before this record, but when “They/Them/Theirs” came out as the first single I had to take a second to figure out what Lauren Denitzio was talking about. Their self-deprecating honesty about how stressful that stuff can be is a reason why this Worriers record stuck with me so hard. Yes, they do a punchy style of pop-punk with great lead lines that wormed their way into my head, but it’s Denitzio’s way of very plainly and directly speaking of their life that charmed me. They seem like they’d be a great friend.
Titus Andronicus — The Most Lamentable Tragedy (2015)
I came a little late to Titus Andronicus and missed their record that got all the hype and love and has shown up on end-of-decade lists, 2010’s The Monitor. Well, I finally listened to that last summer and it’s quite good, to be sure, but I’ll stick with their less beloved but in my opinion way better effort, the double album The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Patrick Stickles leads his band through 90 minutes of rock’n’roll fury, touching on a few styles but never getting too wacky or unnecessarily experimental. He weaves tales that obliquely and also directly refer to his mental breakdown, with crushing humor that lets you know Stickles has high hopes of coming out the other side okay. I generally don’t do records this long, but I make an exception for this one.
Sleater-Kinney — No Cities to Love (2015)
I’ll be writing a piece about Sleater-Kinney’s 2019 record soon, but for now, all I’ll say is that when No Cities to Love came out, I had no clue that this was the end of this version of Sleater-Kinney: a noisy, guitar-based band with loud, propulsive drums. THEY DO NOT DO THAT ANYMORE. Ugh, again, I digress. This record came out after a 10-year hiatus, and just a few seconds into lead single “Bury Our Friends,” it was clear that these women hadn’t lost their fastball. Everything that ever made Sleater-Kinney one of my favorite bands is here. It’s amazing they were able to pull it off, yet also amazing how on this new record THEY DID NOT PULL IT OFF AT ALL, ah sorry, there I go again. Anyway, listen to this one, not the new one!
Hop Along — Painted Shut (2015)
I guess I have to refer to Hop Along as indie rock, but this is the type of indie rock that gets me in the right spots, with its inventive guitar work and nods to melodic punk rock. It ain’t The National or any other boring indie stuff you might weakly throw at me. Upon re-listening to this, I realized that I never learned a lot of the lyrics, but I think that’s because despite the probable goodness of the words, the real good feelings come from merely hearing Frances Quinlan’s voice do incredible things. She can give you breathy and falsetto, but when it’s time to truly push her vocal chords into uncomfortable places, like in “Waitress” or “Happy to See Me,” she shakes the walls. The other two records they put out this decade, Get Disowned and Bark Your Head Off, Dog, are really cool in their own right, but Painted Shut is where I feel like Hop Along fired on all cylinders.
Arms Aloft — What a Time to Be Barely Alive (2016)
In retrospect, there was no more fitting album title for 2016 than this one. Released a month before Trump was elected, I found this record and held onto it for dear life as one of the few constants that could get me through each day without jumping out a window. Arms Aloft’s style of gritty yet melodic pop-punk, like a kinder and gentler Dillinger Four, is 100% up my alley and totally my thing, for sure. But what puts this record over the top for me is its commitment to socialist ideals and desire for an end to everything that ails us. “Three Altars for Rats” envisions a world in which we bring justice to those in power who have caused suffering — “We’ll let the bastards spend 10,000 restless nights with every hair on the backs of their necks alive with the burning glare of grieving mothers’ eyes.” Folks, that’s what’s up.
Special mention goes to this record for probably being the one record on this whole list that I have consistently listened to the most. I never do lots of repeat listens with anything, but I revisit this record constantly. It’s super catchy, the songs get me going, and the message picks me up when I feel terrible. I am grateful for it being in my life.
The Hotelier — Goodness (2016)
I am still so fascinated by what The Hotelier did. They scored an unexpected amount of success from their previous record, Home, Like NoPlace is There (I wrote about it a few scrolls above!), and instead of playing it safe, they threw a twisting curveball at their audience and turned away before really seeing if they hit a strike or not. Vocalist/bassist Christian Holden said they wanted to make a record that surprised people, and that they did. Though there are parts that make you want to sing to the high heavens, it does not have an anthemic feel like their previous work. Though they play hard at times, it has a subdued tone. Holden also said he was interested in using a lot of space within these songs, and this is borne out in the relatively empty spots of songs like “Sun” and “Goodness, Pt. 2.”
You have to work hard to get the most that you can out of Goodness, which is why it will probably never be viewed as favorably as Home, Like NoPlace is There. But the moments of beauty and catharsis found on this record are so massive for me that I kind of hold both records in equal stature, and maybe when I’m 65 and I look just like the nude models on the cover, I will more fondly turn to Goodness as the record that speaks the most to our eternal need for love and companionship, both with each other and with the earth itself.
Propagandhi — Victory Lap (2017)
I will tell everyone I know until my ashes are scattered to the winds that Propagandhi is one of the greatest bands to ever exist on this planet. They should be millionaires and their lyrics should be taught in college classes. Before I get too giddy about Victory Lap, I should direct you here to the big review I wrote about it. In it, I talk about how “Lower Order (A Good Laugh)” is the song that got me to finally stop waffling and just become a damn vegetarian. I am now a vegan and I am never going back. I also talked about “Adventures in Zoochosis” and how it made me cry with its themes of parenthood amidst the absolute devastation and heartbreak of this cruel world, and it still makes me cry to this day.
Elsewhere, each time I revisit this record I am shaken by “Cop Just Out of Frame,” which tells of Quang Duc, the famous Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in protest of the vile South Vietnamese government’s persecution of his people. Vocalist/guitarist Chris Hannah looks at this and asks, “Who the fuck do I think I am fooling, as if I know the first thing about sacrifice or selflessness?” I never want to become complacent in my activism. I can always do more. And I know Chris Hannah and Propagandhi will always drive me to be better, in every aspect of my life.
Sincere Engineer — Rhombithian (2017)
Deanna Belos found the sound she was meant to play when her solo acoustic pop-punk was matched with a super-talented band of players who stay true to the gruff pop-punk that Belos grew up on, while adding emo-inspired guitar touches and intricate drumming that elevate the whole thing into a surprisingly heady mix. I come back to this record a lot for beautifully catchy tunes. As for her lyrics, Belos is deceptively self-deprecating — she sings about making drunken mistakes and spending years in college only to do nothing with her degree — but like most people who tell you how shitty they are, it’s a thin cover for some very real anxiety and sadness. Belos mirrors her generation’s ambivalence toward doing anything, because what’s the point? And I’m not even being facetious!
Incendiary — Thousand Mile Stare (2017)
I will always have a soft spot for metallic hardcore with mosh-laden breakdowns, as long as it’s played almost exactly the way I want it to be. Incendiary does that — there’s no bullshit singing, no weird experimentation, no dabbling in nu-metal. They hit hard, do 10 songs in 27 minutes, and that’s it. What’s even better is how vocalist Brendan Garrone sings about actual social and political issues, rather than about frivolous nonsense and interpersonal beef. Incendiary has something to say, and it feels good to say it with them. This is probably the record I have listened to least out of everything here, but it’s on my list because it has already powered many a workout session at the gym for me, and it will keep me going even further, until I am a muscle-bound antifa freak of nature.
Camp Cope — How to Socialise and Make Friends (2018)
My favorite record of 2018 still sounds brilliant to me. This Australian trio does an indie-punk-emo thing that still blows me away with its singularity, as Georgia MacDonald uses almost no guitar distortion when almost any other band would. And she pulls it off with ease.
Last April, her skill as a frontperson and songwriter became even more impossible to deny when I saw Camp Cope in Grinnell. Their bassist got sick right before the show, which was a huge bummer, but as a trade-off we got something very special — a solo set from Georgia. She was unprepared for this and a little self-conscious, and then she proceeded to blow the roof off the place. It was beyond anything I’ve ever seen. I’m still recovering from it. The genius of these songs came shining through, even without a full band to propel them. I left in awe and slightly giddy, pleased as could be that music could still provide magic for me like that.
Saba — CARE FOR ME (2018)
As the only hip-hop record on this list other than Kendrick’s debut, I’m trying to decide which one I think is better, and if we’re deciding based on pure emotional catharsis, it might be Saba. By confronting the grief over his cousin and collaborator Walter being murdered on the Chicago subway, Saba creates an entire record where death weaves in and out of the plot, sometimes just barely when he’s recounting his inadequacies as a boyfriend in “Fighter,” but most plainly in the absolute masterpiece of “Prom/King.” I am still in disbelief of not just the raw emotional openness contained in it, but in the artistic dexterity it took to craft a 7-minute song that accomplishes so much storytelling yet remains as musical as hip-hop can be. I suspect Saba will only continue his rise in hip-hop. Hopefully at the end of the next decade, he’ll be just as big as Kendrick.
Wild Pink — Yolk in the Fur (2018)
I continue to be perplexed by how much I love this record. It’s dreamy and lush and sort of shoegazey, and there are definitely synthesizers here and there. But despite the surrounding sounds, at their core, Wild Pink is a guitar-based band who write simple yet effective rock songs. They just happen to evoke the sound of riding through a field of sunflowers with your head out the car window.
I think a big reason I love Yolk in the Fur is because I use it as a stress reliever. The mood is overall pleasant and the lyrics are mostly about looking back on old times with fondness, while looking ahead with optimism. I often need that. The most affecting song’s chorus is “Love is better than anything else.” Just reading that line might not do it for you, but in Wild Pink’s hands, it feels like an essential truth.