Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Keep On Dreaming, Even If It Breaks Your Heart: On Failure, And Everything After

When they told me I’d failed, it was like I was hearing their voices from 100 miles away.

Growing up, you learn a lot of things. You learn how to read and how to write. You learn how to add and multiply and subtract and divide. You hopefully learn how to be a humble, kind, respectful human being.

You do not learn how to react when someone tells you that your deepest dreams are off the table. You do not learn how to handle watching your entire future reconfigure itself right in front of your eyes, the product of just a few moments of time. You do not learn how to fail.

On December 15, 2011, somewhere around 5pm in the afternoon, I suffered the most crushing failure of my life. And it has shaped every minute I’ve spent on this planet since. It is the dividing line in my personal history: The simplest way for me to categorize my life is to think about what happened before those 30 minutes, and what happened after them.

Let’s rewind a bit: Music has been in my DNA since I was very young. I started playing piano when I was six. I had a favorite band and a favorite song by the time I was seven. When I was a teenager, I would consider a non-school moment wasted if it wasn’t spent with some form of music playing in the background. From seventh grade on, I spent most of my spare moments thinking about music, or playing it, or seeking it out on the internet. I was obsessed with the idea of soundtracking my life.

At some point, I realized that the best way to soundtrack my life was to sing.

It started small at first: a few hours in choir every week when I was in sixth grade. Then it grew, first to musical theater productions, then to voice lessons, then to more choirs. By ninth grade, I was spending 12-15 hours a week singing. By senior year, it was closer to 20 hours. What had begun as an elective class when I was 12 years old morphed into the thing that defined the very core of my identity. For more than half a decade, I built my entire life around being a singer: around choir and rehearsals and lessons and practice.

No wonder that, when it came time to think about what came after high school, all I could think about was being a professional singer.

There were other things in my life, too – at least in the early years. I was a runner, following in the footsteps of my older brother, who’d smashed school records and gotten within spitting distance of state championship titles. I was also a kid who loved school – books and words especially. Once, in fourth grade, my class had a “reading goal” for the month that involved reading 100 books across our 60-some student body in the space of the month of April. I got us a quarter of the way there all by myself.

But as music became a bigger part of who I was, those other things fell away. I pulled back my effort on running. I stopped applying myself in school. Where once I’d been the kid who read all the books, I was now the student not finishing the summer reading assignment and then bullshitting my way through the papers we had to write about said books. I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, I was bound for something greater. Why should I worry about the other pieces of school when the way I felt onstage dwarfed every other accomplishment I’d ever had in my young life? Why should I work hard when I knew so firmly that the thing that was going to carry me forward in life was the one thing that felt natural?

I was a fool, obviously, but I wouldn’t learn that for years to come. From 2004 to 2011, I blindly followed the thing that I thought in my heart of hearts was my true north: my dream. It was a dream that involved standing on a stage in front of hundreds or thousands of adoring audience members, singing my heart out. I never got to the bottom of exactly what I would be singing to them – whether it was rock ‘n’ roll, or choral music, or musical theater, or opera. I just knew that performing was the only thing I could imagine being the basis of my life. As I neared high school graduation and embarked upon auditions for a college life as a music major, I fooled myself into thinking that the sheer magnitude of my hope would be enough to give my dreams the ability to take flight.

That complete, unerring belief got challenged when college auditions didn’t go the way I expected. Of the four music schools I auditioned for, three rejected me outright; one put me on the waitlist. But then there was the day in April 2009 when an email arrived from Western Michigan University telling me I was off the waitlist and firmly accepted. I somehow thought that setback would be the one big hurdle: that getting into music school was the challenge – rather than actually finding success there, or figuring out a way to make a career out of singing arias and art songs, or coming to terms with a nomadic lifestyle that came with being a touring musician.

Like I said, I was a fool. I just didn’t know it yet.

My first year in college was beguiling: a challenge, to be sure, but an adventure that always felt like the right adventure. From choirs to voice lessons to music classes, I felt like I learned a lot and made a ton of progress as a singer. I felt like I belonged.

My second year of college was the rude awakening. It was realizing that every step forward I’d taken during freshman year was about 100 steps shy of where I’d need to be to make this major worthwhile. At the end of the year, I walked into the exam they call the “performance hearing” and failed. The performance hearing is a barrier exam in the Western Michigan University voice department, meant to determine if students on the vocal performance major track will be allowed to continue with that path or referred to other degree programs. By failing me, the people who’d accepted me into this school two years prior were sending the message that they were no longer sure whether I belonged.

Neither was I. When I went home for summer break that year, I thought briefly about never going back. I didn’t talk about those thoughts with anyone: not my girlfriend, or my parents, or my friends at school. I felt like waving the white flag meant accepting my own failure. And at 20 years old, I wasn’t ready to give up on my dreams just yet. But I did start to come down from the cloud I’d made for myself in high school – the one where I convinced myself that I could focus completely on music because it was going to be my life path. In the back of my mind, I think I knew I needed to give myself an out; an escape hatch; a backup plan.

So I took a piece of advice my girlfriend had given me and I started writing. First it was just a blog about music. Then it was a staff writer position at the school newspaper. By the middle of fall semester, as I was supposed to be in full prep mode for my second attempt at the performance hearing (the generous bastards, they give you two tries!), I was finding myself far more engaged with writing than I was with singing. Even as a member of the finest choral ensemble at the university, I was starting to feel removed from the artistic passion that had driven me for the better part of a decade.

Losing that connection and drive was bizarre. It felt alien to…sort of dread going to choir rehearsals every day, or to leave concerts feeling melancholy and tired rather than with that surge of adrenaline and electricity I’d always experienced after performances when I was younger. In high school, I literally could not sleep after choir concerts, so significant was the adrenaline rush I got from that experience. It made me sad not to feel that way anymore. But it also gave me the perspective I needed to take the step I never thought I’d have the strength to take: Sitting down and actually formulating a Plan B. As in, “If I fail this performance hearing again, what the hell am I going to do with my life?”

I thought all these things – my disenchantment with music school, and maybe with music in general; my backup plan; the fact that I’d found my way back to other interests – would make it easier if I did happen to fail my performance hearing for a second time. In many ways, I’m sure they did. There were versions of myself in college – younger versions, months or years removed from that fateful December day in 2011 – where I couldn’t imagine accepting my own failure. I thought it would be the end of the world. I thought that I’d die, or beg, or maybe throw a tantrum and push a piano off the stage out of pure anguished rage.

The truth was so much more complicated. Because December 15th eventually did wind around, and I did walk onto a stage, and I sang for 20 minutes, and then I walked off that stage. And then four people deliberated for 10 minutes on what my future would be, and then they called me back into the room to tell me that what they’d decided was, “unfortunately, not the thing I wanted to hear.” And boy, let me tell you: Hearing someone shatter your dreams and tell you that your best isn’t good enough is one of the most surreal things that can ever happen to you. Here I was, in the midst of the most devastating failure of my life – a moment I’d only really allowed myself to imagine in nightmares. But then I also remember this bizarre calm washing over me; feeling suddenly like I was somewhere else, hearing the voices of my professors from a great distance, from 100 miles away. I think, subconsciously, I was flipping a switch: from the moment where these people and their decision mattered instrumentally to who I was; to the moment right after that decision, where those same people suddenly ceased having any bearing on my life whatsoever.

I also remember feeling this electric hum in my heart and my soul as I walked out of my hearing. I felt weirdly weightless. By all accounts, what had just happened should have broken me. I’d invested so much of my life into this one dream, and here I was, surveying the moment where the entire thing got dashed upon the rocks. I was definitely feeling a mix of emotions, and a lot of them weren’t great. There was sadness there, and regret, and frustration – mostly over the amount of time I’d spent pursuing a college major that had essentially ended in a checkmate. I definitely had a moment where I wished I’d taken a path in college that didn’t lead to the front seat of my Honda Civic on that cold December night, crying my eyes out as I called my mom on the phone to tell her that my dream of being a professional singer had reached its apparent endpoint. That was probably the single hardest moment of all, actually, because she was the only person in the world who’d believed in my dream as much as I did. But she reassured me that, maybe someday, I’d look back on this failure as a blessing in disguise.

And indeed, the weirdest emotion I was feeling that night – as it slowly settled in that I was going to need to embark upon some new journey now – was relief. All these things came rushing into my head, possibilities that I had consciously or subconsciously ruled out for myself as someone who was headed toward the life of either “broke musician” or “touring musician.” Some of them were simple and quaint, like “I can start collecting records,” because I might be in one place long enough to enjoy them. Some of them were a lot grander, like “I can marry the girl I love and we can build a life together.” The one I’d never even allowed myself to consider up until that moment was “Maybe someday we’ll move back home.”

Six years later, to the exact day, my wife got a job offer in our childhood hometown. It was a funny little twist of fate that proved to me I was on the path I was meant to be on.

Looking back now, 10 years to the day since that fateful failure, I have the perspective to know that not getting what I thought I wanted was a gift. Failing that significantly at that age was a gift. Learning how to fail taught me how to be tougher, how to recognize the difference between dreams and life, how to bid farewell to ego and entitlement, and how to be grateful for all the good things in my world. Losing my dream opened up a whole new horizon of opportunities and offered me free reign to explore them.

In the first Harry Potter book, Dumbledore tells Harry that “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” I was 21 years old and I’d been dwelling on the same dream since I was 14. For years, it had felt like an asset, something to push me and drive me and define my life purpose. At some point, it became an anchor: something that held me down, something that broke my heart again and again and again, until I found myself crying in a parked car in a cold parking garage, telling my mom that I’d been failed by four professors who never cared to ask about all the choices that had gotten me to that moment. That last heartbreak was the toughest to get over, but it also meant that my anchor was gone. I could take Dumbledore’s advice, and live.

It’s not all positive, though – not even in retrospect, with the benefit of time and perspective at my fingertips. There are still wounds from what happened, scars that I don’t think will ever fully heal. Every time I hear a choir sing, it breaks my heart. I have not sung as part of a choral ensemble since that school year. If you knew me in high school, that’s probably a wild thing to read, because being a “choir kid” defined who I was for so long. Singing in choirs was the purest joy I had in my life for years and years and years. It was a refuge from everything else, a place where all my other worries fell away and I could just be. Choral music is spiritual and transformative and magical and perfect, in a world where not enough things are worthy of any of those adjectives. I firmly believe that there is nothing else on the planet that can make you feel like your soul is lifting up toward heaven in the way that hearing or singing with a great choir can. But I can’t feel that joy anymore. I lost my dream 10 years ago tonight, but the worst thing that day took away from me was the ability to lose myself in choral music without the baggage I have now.

But who knows? Maybe one day I’ll wake up to find that those wounds have healed. I’ll put on a recording of one of my old choirs and it won’t put a bittersweet ache into my heart. I’ll join a community choir and be able to feel the joy and release that I always felt in that world when I was young. I hope that day comes, because I miss being a part of something that was bigger than myself, in that unique way.

Still, if I could turn back time now, I’m not sure I’d do any of it differently. The journey I took – through music, to my major, to Western, to the friends I made there, to the girl I married, and to the failure that shaped so much of what has happened since – is the narrative that made me who I am. In comic books, they call it an origin story. How can you wish to reverse something that, in the end, helped give you a great life? 10 years ago, I briefly thought that failing that performance hearing would be the end of my life. Today, I think maybe it was only the beginning.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

My Top 200 Favorite Albums of the 2010s

I still believe that the album is the greatest artform in the world.

I love movies. I love TV. I love books. I obviously love songs. But there is something about the album that I think is different. Albums have this power to come into your life and become a constant, fixed part of it. They define moments, or hours, or days, or weeks, or months, or years. They take on the color of your life at the moment when you first hear them, and play as soundtrack for crucial milestones and mundane moments alike. I could make a “top movies of the decade” list knowing full well that I haven’t seen even my favorite films from the past 10 years more than a dozen times. But I have heard every album on this list dozens of times; most of them I have heard hundreds of times. They have been companions of mine in a way that I don’t think any other type of art could be. They have certainly captured the many milestones of my past 10 years: college; falling in love with the girl I would ultimately marry; the biggest failure of my life; a total reconfiguration of my goals and dreams; graduating and entering the real world; flailing about in said real world; finding my footing; getting engaged; getting married; losing my grandpa; adopting awesome cats; buying a house; making my own albums; moving back home; finding rewarding twists and turns in my career path that I never would have foreseen. 

Most end-of-the-decade lists so far have tried to grapple with the way music said something about the culture this decade, about the world we live in. I am not particularly interested in that discussion. I have always been far more fascinated by what music means on the more granular level, to each individual person who hears it. How do the albums you love tell your story? Why do they move you? Why do they mean the world to you? These are the questions I love seeing music writers and music fans try to answer, even if the answers are often harder to give (and much, much more personal) than simply recapping why an album caught the zeitgeist at the right moment. 

Those questions are also the ones that I have tried to answer here, throughout this epic writing project that has dominated the past year of my life. Last year, I went back in time and wrote about my 100 favorite albums from the2000s, a formative decade for my music taste and for who I am as a person. I followed that rubric here, spending 20 or so minutes every evening since January picking out an album from the past 10 years and trying to explain why I thought it deserved to be here. It’s been a long, long road, and this is a long, long list, so I’ll stop rambling and get to the point. The last thing I’ll say, though, is that I hope this decade has been as rewarding a musical journey for you as it was for me.

1. Taylor Swift - Red

“I never saw you coming, and I’ll never be the same.” On “State of Grace,” the first song from Red, Taylor Swift sings those words, and she’s right. This album was a pivot point for Swift, a shift away from the country-leaning pop of its predecessors to a kaleidoscope of new genres and sounds. There were still elements of country, tying everything together. But Swift was throwing everything at the canvas, and she was doing it with more confidence than we’d ever heard from her before. U2-esque arena rock? Give it a try. The lo-fi bedroom folk musings of Mazzy Star? Why not? Dubstep? Maybe inadvisable, but sure! It was fitting that the album was so scattershot sonically, because it was also all over the place emotionally. Elation; romance; infatuation; love; euphoria; dissatisfaction; yearning; loneliness; despair; heartbreak; heartache; sadness; recovery. No record from this decade better captured the full spectrum of emotions that comes with falling in and out of love. In the liner notes, Taylor wrote that this record “is about love that was red”—or love that was reckless and treacherous and desperate and thrilling and temporary. “There is something to be said for being young and needing someone so badly you jump in without looking,” she wrote. That’s the “never saw you coming” part. The “never be the same” part is there in the songs. It’s how an ill-fated romance leaves you with scars and memories that are as vivid as the pictures in any photo album. It’s how your past love stories teach you new things about yourself, hopefully giving you the tools you need to make the next one last. It’s how your feelings for another person can change over time, sometimes deepening and sometimes fading away.

“Sad, Beautiful, Tragic” is a song about a long-distance relationship that has worn its participants down to such a degree that the acoustic guitar actually sounds out of tune. “We both wake in lonely beds, in different cities,” Taylor sings, and they are lines that convey so beautifully the emotional distance that physical distance can breed. That’s the thing about Red: we talk about Taylor Swift as a superstar and purveyor of pop hits, but we don’t give her enough credit as a sheer craftswoman, as a master of words and mood and story. This album is her pinnacle in all those departments, exploding so many moments from the relationships we’ve all lived—moments good and bad—that it’s impossible to listen to it and not reflect. There is so much vivid life in these songs, from dances around the kitchen in the refrigerator light to crashed yacht club parties, from break ups that feel like they are going to strangle you all the way to nervous coffee shop meetups with new crushes.

This album came out a month before I turned 22, in the middle of my last year of college, and during year three of a long-distance relationship with the girl I would marry. There is no album that recalls college as vividly for me, and I think that’s because there’s no album I listened to more. I’d put it on all the time—for drives to visit my girlfriend, or long homework sessions, or moments of celebratory jubilation with friends. Because no matter what I was doing or how I was feeling, there was always at least one song that fit the moment. There’s no other record from this decade that I can say that about, which maybe explains why no other record has stuck with me in quite the same way. If you’d have asked me at the beginning of 2010 who I thought would make my album of the decade, I wouldn’t have bet on Taylor Swift. I didn’t even put Red in my top five at the end of 2012, for reasons that I can neither recall nor justify now. But when I look back on these 10 years, Red is the album that most sounds like how it felt to live them. I guess you could say that I never saw it coming. You could certainly say that I’ll never be the same.

2. Butch Walker - Stay Gold

In November, Butch Walker turned 50. When he scored his first hit single—the 1998 Marvelous 3 smash “Freak of the Week”—he was 28. When I started listening to him, he was 35. (I was 14.) He’s written about getting older on his records before this, specifically with regard to becoming a father and then losing a father. But Stay Gold is his most overt reckoning with the passage of time. It’s an album from an aging punk whose life has reached its halfway point, but who also has a hell of a lot of living left to do. The songs are a celebration of both of those things: the past that’s gone and the part that’s still to come. On most of the tracks, Butch crafts his most nostalgic sound ever: a combination of Petty’s southern twang and Springsteen’s small-town everyman. It’s his Born in the U.S.A., a big pop-rock album that jams side one full of anthems and then starts delving into some heavier ideas as side two spins toward the middle of the disc. It’s an album about recognizing that there’s nothing wrong with holding fond memories in your heart: about past flames or old friends or times in your life when you felt nothing but unbridled, blood-pumping, wild freedom. But it’s also about recognizing that you can’t always go back to the good ol’ days; that the cars you cruised the backstreets in or fell in love in get sold; that your favorite bands will sometimes stop writing songs you relate to; that your go-to record stores will eventually go out of business. It’s an album, in short, about getting older but still feeling like you should be young. The older I get, the more that idea resonates with me. I keep thinking that I’ll eventually turn a corner and start to see myself as something different: as a grown-up; as a successful adult; as someone capable of being a parent. But then I play those old records and remember so vividly how they made my heart pound faster when I was 14 or 17 or 21, and I’m convinced that I can’t possibly be pushing 30. The bad news is that you can’t get back some of those things that time takes away: the innocence of the dizzying carnival ride that “East Coast Girl” evokes, or the close bonds you had with an ex’s family members before your breakup inevitably cut them short, a la “Spark: Lost.” But the good news is that life is a long journey, full of twists and turns and arcs that you might never have anticipated. You just gotta stay gold now, Pony Boy, and take it all as it comes. It speaks volumes to me that this album, this ebullient ode to youth, made me feel more alive than any other record I heard in the past 10 years. It turns out there are some things that can still make you feel like a kid again—even when you’re really not anymore.

3. Jason Isbell - Southeastern

The greatest redemption arc of the 2010s starts here, with a spartan progression of acoustic guitar chords. On first blush, “Cover Me Up” maybe doesn’t sound like the announcement of something. It’s quiet and patient and unassuming, in a way that makes you think the song and the album are going to be slow-burns. But the further you get into “Cover Me Up,” the more remarkable it becomes. “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff/Forever this time,” Isbell sings in the second verse—a line that never fails to elicit a deafening blast of cheers at live shows. But it was always the next lines that really kicked me in the gut: “And the old lovers sing, ‘I thought it’d be me who helped him get home’/But home was a dream, one that I’d never seen/Until you came along.” It’s a song about finding the strength to stand up to your own demons and fight them, but it’s also about how you can sometimes only find that strength when you have something to fight for beyond yourself. There is no greater love song from the past 10 years, and no greater album opener. “Cover Me Up” seems to identify Southeastern as Isbell’s “sober record,” or maybe as his “falling in love” record. It is both and it is neither. Tracks like “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” and “Traveling Alone” carry with them the weight of mistakes and the ability for love to trump those mistakes. But if Southeastern is a sober record or a love record, it’s less because all the songs are about those things and more because of what falling in love and then getting sober allowed Isbell to accomplish. On past albums, Isbell was always a sharp songwriter. You couldn’t listen to tracks like “Dress Blues” or “Alabama Pines” and think he was anything but a remarkable talent. But hearing Southeastern is like seeing Superman away from kryptonite for the first time. The way this album unlocks Isbell’s gifts as a melodist and especially as a lyricist and storyteller will never stop being remarkable to me. Songs like “Live Oak,” about a serial killer trying (and failing) to change his ways, or “Yvette,” about a teenage boy taking matters into his own hands to save a classmate who is being sexually abused by her father, deserve screenplay treatments. “Elephant,” about watching a friend succumb to cancer, is arguably the decade’s most devastating song. And “Relatively Easy” is a bittersweet, beautiful anthem that seems to say one thing (“Stop complaining; our lives are easy; lots of people have it way worse!”) but is really saying another (“You never know the battles that people are really facing every day”). In terms of pure songwriting, there is no better album from the past 10 years, and no album that inspired me more to pick up the guitar and write.

4. Noah Gundersen - Ledges

 In a lot of ways, Ledges was the album that most influenced the direction of my music taste this decade. Discovering Noah Gundersen carried echoes of discovering Butch Walker a decade before. I couldn’t believe how much I loved Ledges, even right away, or how perfectly it aligned with what I believed music should be. It felt, within a few hours, like something that had been with me for my entire life, just like Letters did on that winter day back in eighth grade when I first heard it. This record was earnest and lyrically gripping, and so, so emotional that I felt like every song was sending a cascade of shivers down my spine. Gundersen had a talent for making music that sounded like it could have been crafted 70 years ago, but that still felt like it was saying something about modern life, relationships, heartbreak, and mortality. 2013 had been a tough year for me: one where I’d come up against the harsh realities of the real world and failed to live up to my own expectations for myself in my post-college life. Almost all the music from that year is filtered through that prism for me: of failure and disappointment and money troubles. 2014 was a brighter year, mostly. I got married, and the first seven months of the year were completely dominated by planning a wedding and then having a wedding. It was a weird cognitive dissonance: these happy times intertwined with this deeply sad album. It was almost odd to reconcile the two things: my excitement for the wedding versus the haunting, heartbreaking songs like “First Defeat” and “Cigarettes,” about relationships that never got their happy ending. But 2014 was also an emotional journey: a year that took me from a bitter cold Chicago winter to a gorgeous summer wedding week in northern Michigan, all the way to a chilly October funeral in Ohio after we lost my Grandpa. Ledges was my companion through all that, an album whose heartfelt vulnerability coexisted with its emotional bombast in a way that ultimately scanned as resilient. “Here I stand on the edge of the ledges I’ve made/Looking for a steady hand,” Gundersen sings in the title track. As I reeled for that kind of steadiness in the wake of my college years, this album ended up being the first thing that made things feel like they had a foundation again.

5. The Dangerous Summer - War Paint

When you’re young, you don’t just listen to music; you feel it in every fiber of your being. As you grow older, you maybe come to appreciate the nuances of music and songwriting and storytelling in new ways, which is its own kind of magic. But nothing can compare to when you’re 18 or 19 or 20 and clinging to music like it’s some version of the air you breathe. War Paint was one of the last albums I connected with in that way, and I’m not sure I ever needed music in that way more. I came into the summer of 2011 busted up and wondering where I wanted to go next in my life. I’d gone into college as a music major, but I was disenchanted and frustrated, wondering if I’d chosen the right path or just set myself up for failure and disappointment. That summer restored my faith in the power of music—for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of this album. From the moment it hit my computer hard drive in early July, I felt disinclined to play anything else. I spent so many scorching July days and so many muggy August nights blasting this album in my car or losing myself in its swell of sound over headphones. I loved every second of it. I was the lonely heart in need of an honest song in “No One’s Gonna Need You More,” or the guy making that heartfelt proclamation in “Siren”: “You’re the song I wrote that I’ll always love.” I still can’t listen to these songs, or hear the guitar chords, or even read the lyrics without feeling a flood of memories from that season—from the last time that I really called on music to save my life and it responded with an embarrassment of riches. Standing where I am now, War Paint isn’t my favorite album of the last 10 years—it’s not the best one, or the one that impacted my music taste most, or the one that I feel like will be regarded as a universal classic in 10 or 20 years. But I’d be lying if I said there was an album from this decade that meant more to me in the moment.

6. Chad Perrone - Release

I wasn’t prepared for Release. I wasn’t prepared for the hard truths that Chad Perrone was throwing at his listeners on this album, or the way those truths collided with what was going on in my own life at the time to make it one of the most wrenching albums I had ever heard. Perrone had always been an emotive songwriter, but he’d mostly struck a balance between raw pathos and hooky anthems up to this point. Release changed things: it was harsh and hard and unforgiving. Perrone sounded frustrated and exhausted and heartbroken, yearning for pieces of the past even as he was beginning to feel like he might not be so young anymore. If this album was a release of anything, it was the naivete of youth. “You could have everything you’d ever want,” Perrone sings at one point, before adding the aside: “Who told that myth to you?” Release is packed full of knife twists just like that: “Here for Good,” about accepting that your friend group will eventually fracture and go their separate ways; “Under Different Circumstances,” about how you and the girl you love could really be something amazing if it weren’t for bad timing and personal entanglements; “Quit You,” about acknowledging that you might never truly get over the person who changed your life and then walked out of it. The record is a masterclass in the art of writing a breakup album: all big cathartic choruses and heart-on-the-sleeve vocals, all confessional lyrics that would have made perfect away messages back in the days of AIM. But when I first heard Release, I was in the opposite situation, falling in love and reveling in the perfection of a summertime romance. When the summer came to an end, I kissed my girlfriend goodbye and drove south, toward college and toward a school year that I would have to spend largely apart from her. Release was the album on the stereo as I drove, and it shattered me. It seemed to bottle up all the doubt and insecurity and sadness I was feeling as I drove away from her. I didn’t know much about my life at that point, or about what I wanted it to be. But I was sure in my heart that I didn’t want whatever we had together to become the kind of emotional wreck that these songs chronicled. I didn’t want her to be a missed opportunity, or a former flame that I couldn’t quit. And so, oddly, Release—this raw, aching breakup album—became a sort of rallying cry for me as I prepared to undertake a long-distance relationship for the first time in my life. By showing me what I didn’t want, these songs gave me the strength to fight like hell to keep the one thing I knew I did.

7. Caitlyn Smith - Starfire 

What’s the cost of a dream? On Starfire, Caitlyn Smith reckons with that question. It’s a story we’ve heard before, especially in relation to the city of Nashville and the genre of country music. Moving to that city can put you on a path toward fame, or it can put you on a roller coaster filled with little moments of promise and forward momentum, intercut with crushing failures and huge disappointments. Smith lived that story, and Starfire—her first proper full-length release—plays like a collection of scars that chronicle what it cost her. Romantic prospects; family; the place that used to be home; happy, healthy relationships; stability. These are all things that, at one point or another in these songs, have to be sacrificed in the name of the big dream. Smith misses her grandpa’s funeral in “This Town Is Killing Me,” and she worries about losing her roots in “St. Paul.” She begs a lover not to leave in “Don’t Give up on My Love” and muses about loneliness in “Scenes from a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday.” Over and over, she pays an ever-mounting toll that would cause many of us to wave the white flag and give up. To choose a different life. This decade, one of the biggest lessons I had to learn was that sometimes your dreams change, and that it might be okay to stop chasing them. Growing up, I thought it would be the death of me not to pursue music as a career. When I went through a crushing failure in college, in the midst of an eventually-aborted vocal performance degree, I re-evaluated my life and decided that what had once felt like oxygen to me was no longer the most vital thing in my life. That failure didn’t kill me, but it did hurt like hell, and I knew I didn’t have it in me to face that again and again and again and not give up. To do that requires a unique type of strength that not very many people have. Starfire is an album about that type of strength. It’s also an album that shows precisely why that strength is justified. Because when Caitlyn Smith sings, you can hear her resolve and her steadfastness, and you can absolutely hear her spine-tingling talent. Her voice, so full of power and pathos, is, I think, a once-in-a-generation kind of gift. I couldn’t handle the cycle of failure and rejection that comes with being a professional musician, but God: I’m so thankful that Caitlyn Smith could. It would be a travesty for an album this good not to exist.

8. Field Report - Marigolden

One of my favorite annual music traditions is the “Christmas Eve album.” Ever since my wife and I started dating, we’ve exchanged gifts on the morning of Christmas Eve at her parents’ house, usually before or after brunch. It’s been a way for us to spend Christmas with our respective families while also celebrating it together. Every year, I pick an album to soundtrack the wintry drive from my parents’ house to her parents’ house and then back again. Some brilliant albums have played that role over the years, and many of them are on this list: Such Jubilee by Mandolin Orange; Stranger in the Alps by Phoebe Bridgers; Both Ways by Donovan Woods. But my favorite has got to be Marigolden. Before that drive on Christmas Eve 2014, I liked this album a lot. After that drive, it was one of my favorite albums of the decade. Something about the experience—the solitude of the drive; the snow-covered surroundings; the way the Christmas spirit in the air made the songs sound just a little bit like magic—elevated this album and made me love it more. It was already an emotionally-complicated Christmas: the first since my wife and I had wed, but also our first without my grandpa. These songs seemed to translate the unique, peculiar ache of that holiday into something expressible. The album itself is an impressionistic, entrancing record about frontman Chris Porterfield’s recovery from alcoholism. But the record also grapples with subjects of home, and family, and relationships, and bonds between parents and children, and distance, and loneliness, and death. “Pale Rider” is about the loss of a child and how it can shatter a parent, or a family, or an entire community. “Summons” is a dizzying, dreamlike drive across the country, stumbling home to the one person who can help you make sense of your life. And “Home (Leave the Lights On)” is about finally getting back to that sanctuary, to a place that lives up to the mantra of “long live beauty, short live pain.” The songs here feel simultaneously weightless and like the heaviest things in the world, like clear-eyed dreams and like half-remembered premonitions from a deep, deep sleep. For that one Christmas when I was feeling conflicted about whether to feel joy or love or gratitude or heartbreak or anger or melancholy, this record let me feel all of it and more. There will never be a Christmas when I don’t play it and remember just how much that simple drive and this decidedly-not-simple record meant to me in the year when I needed both most.

9. Butch Walker - Afraid of Ghosts

After Clarence Clemons passed away, Bruce Springsteen said losing him was “like losing the rain.” “Suddenly, it’s just gone,” he said; “everything feels less.” To lose a pillar in your life is to contend with this sensation. Losing someone you love so deeply and in such an elemental way feels not only heartbreaking, but downright wrong. As in, how can the world possibly keep spinning if this thing that was always there is gone? Afraid of Ghosts is the sound of Butch Walker grappling with this question. He wrote and recorded this album in a burst of grief following his father’s death, and you can hear every ounce of his broken heart splayed out in the songs. Hearing Afraid of Ghosts at any time would have been an emotional experience. Hearing it for the first time three months after the death of my grandfather—a huge father figure in my life—tore me apart. “You don’t become a man until you lose your dad, you see.” Butch sings those words in “Father’s Day,” right before a torrential guitar solo breaks through to wash the pain away. He’s right—though the word “dad” is less important in that lyric than the sentiment behind the words. To lose someone foundational in your life is, as Bruce said, like losing the rain. It’s like losing air, or summertime, or water, or trees. Losing my grandpa felt like that, because he’d always been the root of my family tree and the anchor to so much of how I identified myself and lived my life. This album helped me put those feelings in context. The songs let me mourn him properly. They acted as a shoulder to cry on as I tried to figure out how I was going to face a world without him. Every year since then, on the anniversary of his death, I make a point of putting this album on the turntable, dropping the needle, and letting myself dwell in the melancholy, bittersweet pain the songs still dredge up. There are albums I’ve listened to more, and even albums I like more, but no album from the past 10 years aches for me quite like this one does.
10. Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour

Look, when it comes to music publications, the Grammys, and pretty much any other arbiter of what is “good” in the world of music, I am nothing if not a cynical bastard. That’s what happens when you spend years watching these institutions honor music that sounds either dull or downright bad to your ears. Growing up, I got used to my favorite artists going unheralded. I reasoned to myself that the lack of “consensus” praise for those artists only made them more “mine.” Every once in awhile, though, an artist that is “yours” ends up breaking through to broader acclaim and becoming “everyone’s.” Golden Hour was one such moment. It was an album that turned a largely unsung genre hero into a crossover Album of the Year-winning Grammy superstar. It’s the best album to win that award in more than 30 years—since The Joshua Tree, as far as I’m concerned—and it got there about as organically as you can. Golden Hour didn’t have a big single and wasn’t treated as an “event” album in the way that today’s big pop or rap releases get rolled out. It won people over the old-fashioned way: by being a collection of extremely great songs that also cohered into something greater than the sum of their parts. Golden Hour is a treatise on falling in love and the before and after of that equation: the loneliness and heartbreak of the stormy days, and the beauty of the rainbow that breaks through when the rain finally lets up and the sun shines through. It’s a kaleidoscopic slow burn of an album, a happy-sad classic that chronicles all the colors of love—from the bright pink naivete of a new crush to the brilliant sapphire blue of a long-term commitment. There are a lot of albums about love, but not many convey everything it means as sharply or viscerally as this one.

11. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound 

What gives a lifelong love story its magic? On “If We Were Vampires,” Jason Isbell muses about what he thinks might be the answer: mortality. “If we were vampires and death was a joke/We’d stand out on the sidewalk and smoke/And laugh at all the lovers and their plans/And I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand/Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift/And give you every second I can find/And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.” When we think of the marriages that last decades—those between our parents or our grandparents or good family friends—we tend to think about the time they’ve spent together as what makes their bond so remarkable. My grandparents celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary shortly before my grandpa passed away in 2014, the same year my wife and I wed. I remember being so amazed by the magnitude of their commitment to one another: that they could stay in love for that long, in that way. But the truly remarkable thing about true love is that no matter how many years you get, it’s never enough time. Because always, the other side of the hourglass is losing sand. What gives love its urgency and its power and its magic is that even the permanent relationships are temporary. If we were immortal beings, maybe we wouldn’t value each other in the same way, because our time together wouldn’t be finite. If we missed a year or a week or a day together, there would still be uncountable others remaining. But we’re not vampires, which means we need to choose how to invest our lives. The Nashville Sound is a staggering album about that kind of investment. It’s a record about love and marriage and family and devotion, and about how those things sometimes have to weather the storms of a troubled world. For every character whose choices leave him stranded alone in the bad part of town or swallowed whole by the goddamn Cumberland Gap, there’s another one vowing to run off to Tupelo to see about a girl, or singing his daughter to sleep with visions of a better world. “There can’t be more of them than us,” Isbell sings in “Hope the High Road,” a visceral anthem written in the wake of Trump’s election. When he says “us,” he doesn’t mean a political party or even a group of people united in their dislike of the president; he means people who want to invest their lives in the things they love without being told who they’re allowed to love, or how they are allowed to live their lives. If we were vampires, maybe we wouldn’t care about racism or ignorance or senseless war. But again, we’re not and we do. Like the best political music, The Nashville Sound is refracted through the prism of the things that we fight for because we can’t afford to lose them.

12. Jimmy Eat World - Surviving

Surviving is the sound of America’s greatest band taking stock of who they are, where they’ve been, where the country is, and where they want to go. 10 albums and 25 years into their career, Jimmy Eat World went into this album determined not to let complacency get the best of them. The result is the most kinetic set of songs they’ve recorded in well over a decade, an electrically-charged collection that oscillates between anthemic (the title track) and cutting (the Trump-era takedown of “Criminal Energy”). At this point, anyone who listens to Jimmy Eat World knows their tricks: the midtempo ballad; the power-pop rock song; the aggressive single. But on Surviving, the band somehow makes those things sound new again. The templates are familiar, but the songs feel older, wiser, more informed by specific experiences. 15 years ago, Jimmy Eat World released the album that changed my life and made me fall in love with music: 2004’s Futures. But I think it’s fair to say that they couldn’t have written a song like “Love Never,” back then, about the patience and time it takes for a bond worthy of the word “love” to form; or like “Diamond,” about the long, long, long journey we all take to find our true selves. These are anthems wrought from time and trial and error and struggle. They feel hard-fought and hard-won, but they don’t feel like victories. Jimmy Eat World have acknowledged by now that everything and everyone is a work in progress. On Surviving, their best album in more than a decade, that resolve feels invigorating, because it means that a band we’ve had for a quarter-century might still, somehow, be getting better.

13. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness - Upside Down Flowers

Normally, I equate nostalgia with fondness. While there’s always a bittersweet tilt to looking back on memories with friends you don’t see much anymore—or with friends who you haven’t even spoken with in years—it’s still easy to recall those good times and smile. But recently, I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream about people who aren’t in my life anymore, and it filled me with this starkly lonely existential dread. For the first time, I felt like I was...getting old? Upside Down Flowers is an album for that specific moment in your life. It’s about nostalgia and memory and the past, and how they can all affect your present in positive and negative ways. There is nothing wrong with holding onto things in your heart and your soul even after they’ve gone. We all cling to those things: to hometowns and lost loved ones and friends that exited the frame of our lives. But there also comes a time when it’s important to recognize the way that nostalgia—that viewing the past through rose-colored glasses—might negatively impact your present. The thing about time is that it’s a one-way highway with no option to take an off ramp and turn around. So we can look back and reminisce, but if you spend too much time doing that, it can start to fill you with the same sense of existential dread that I felt that night. There’s no way back to the person you used to be. There’s no way back to the loved ones who aren’t living anymore, or to friendships that you let wither and fall by the wayside. The only option, sometimes, is to keep driving. This album both fights against that concept and embraces it. “House in the Trees,” for instance, is a poignant and agonizing song about all the things you never got to say to the people you care about when you had the chance. But then there’s “Everything Must Go,” which revels in the letting go and the moving on. “I know it’s hard to say goodbye,” Andrew sings, as he divests himself of worldly positions and the memories they carry. But he knows it’s for the best: “It don’t matter as long as you’re mine/Let’s go, let’s fly.”

14. The Dangerous Summer - Mother Nature

Mother Nature made me feel like a kid again. I was so convinced, after 2013’s Golden Record and 2018’s The Dangerous Summer, that this band’s time as a titanic force in my life was over. They’d been there when I needed them most: for my tumultuous coming-of-age years, when I still wasn’t quite at the door of adulthood yet. Once I crossed that threshold, their music felt different to me. But Mother Nature, listening to this record on late-night drives this past summer, it reminded me of how viscerally I felt Reach for the Sun and War Paint when I needed them most. Most reprises or revivals or comebacks function as pale mimicry of the real thing. They play on your nostalgia to tug at your heartstrings, but they lack the substance to be something truly prescient in your current life. Mother Nature is an exception to that rule: it’s a record that is all heart, made by a group of guys who so genuinely want to connect with their audience in the way that they used to. Mother Nature comes from an older, wiser place than Reach for the Sun: there are wounds in these songs that weren’t there 10 years ago, wounds that only come with time and age and with the pains and joys that life is always throwing at you. But somehow, those wounds only make these songs sound more urgent, more forceful, more desperate to connect. When I hear these songs, I hear hope and optimism: that things are going to work out okay; that second and third and fourth chances do exist; that there’s still a lot of life left to live even after those youthful memories start to look more and more like ghosts. “I still see all the wonder in those eyes/We can live life before we die/Counting the days I wanna fall in love with you,” AJ Perdomo sings on “Better Light.” Those lines, and the record, to me, are about rediscovering the beauty in the world and in the relationships we have with the people in it. Life is long, but it’s also short. Live it well.

15. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball

One of my favorite music memories from the past 10 years occurred the night Wrecking Ball leaked on the internet. It was a Sunday evening during the spring of my junior year of college. I was sitting in my bedroom in my apartment, taking one last glance around the internet before turning in for the night. And then I saw it. The new Springsteen album was out there, available weeks early for those willing to click a few links and wait a few minutes for a download to complete. Suddenly, any thoughts of going to sleep were dashed. Here was a new album from the artist who had defined the past three years of my life—the first new album from Springsteen since I’d morphed into a die-hard fan. Of course I was going to stay up and listen. For 54 minutes, I sat in front of my computer and just let this album wash over me. I was blown away at how lively Bruce sounded on “Easy Money” and “Death to My Hometown.” I was transported by songs like “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression,” which seemed to say something new about the then-recent economic downturn. I was in awe over some of the risks he took, like the hip-hop-influenced “Rocky Ground.” And I thought that the title track was the best song he’d put on an album in years, maybe even decades—that was, until I heard “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Here was a song us Bruce fans had already heard. It was a live-only track that the E Street Band had trotted out a dozen years earlier, during the 2000 reunion tour. But hearing it on record—hearing Clarence’s sax blast through the proceedings from beyond the grave—was something else entirely. Sometimes, music makes me believe in miracles, and listening to Clarence on that track felt like a miracle to me. By the end of the track, I was in tears, bawling at my desk over the power of the brotherhood that Bruce wasn’t letting go of, even after the death of his greatest sideman. A lot of people heard Wrecking Ball as a political protest album first and foremost, but for me, it was always a deeply heartfelt farewell to the Big Man. “Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend,” Bruce sings in the “We Are Alive,” the album’s closing salvo; “It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end.”

16. Noah Gundersen - Carry the Ghost 

Some songs make it hard to breathe. They capture a memory, or a moment, or a feeling so vividly that listening to them forces some sort of bizarre Pavlovian response in you. For me, “Blossom” by Noah Gundersen has always been one of those songs. Even from the first time I heard it, “Blossom” seemed to evoke memories of a lost, romantic summer night: the joy; the possibility; the unparalleled beauty; the melancholy feeling of looking back at a perfect summer memory from your youth and knowing you’ll never be that innocent or bright-eyed again. Carry the Ghost, in many ways, is a record about lost innocence. It’s about relationships long gone, or maybe about ones that just have lost their fire. It’s about being a young person who loses their religious faith and then has to grapple with that truth—with losing pillars of meaning in your life and then forging new ones. There’s sadness in these losses, but not just sadness. Noah said this album was about self-discovery: about searching for how one is “supposed to live” and about ultimately realizing that there is no one right way to live a life. “This is all we have/This is all we are/Blood and bones, no holy ghost/Empty from the start” he sings on the centerpiece track. Discovering that you have the freedom to live a life without shackles—religious or relational or based on someone else’s expectations—is an impossibly freeing revelation. One of the great things about life is that we all get the chance to find our own truths and make our own destinies. On Carry the Ghost, by giving his listeners a front-row seat to his crises of faith and searches for meaning in the world, Noah Gundersen made a relatable masterpiece about one of young adulthood’s key rites of passage.

17. The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang 

The ’59 Sound was an album about growing up. It was an album about seizing the wheel and taking control of your life after years spent in the wonderful fever dream of youth. American Slang is an album about actually being grown up. It’s about how the world looks different when you’re driving the car rather than just riding in the backseat. But that doesn’t mean your youth just vanishes. One of the great myths of adulthood is that you eventually reach some inflection point where you start feeling “mature,” or “responsible,” or like you “have it all figured out.” The great wisdom of American Slang is in how it recognizes that no such moment exists. Instead, we’re all out here faking it, doing our best while trying not to think too much about the way things used to be. But the “used to bes” somehow always find their way back to you: in the form of old records and old cars and old haunts. And so Brian Fallon spends this album waxing poetic about the past—even though he knows it’s not coming back. “But you’re never gonna find it/Like when you were young/And everybody used to call you lucky,” he sings early on. That’s the thing about youth: every adult you ever meet tells you to cherish it, to treat it like the gift it is, and no one ever listens. If only we could have the wisdom of experience with the impossible freedoms of innocence. The fact that we can’t is a timeless tragedy, and it’s the skin and bones of this album. As Springsteen once sang, “So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” American Slang takes that one lyric and blows it up into a modern epic worthy of its grandiose, impressive title.

18. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free

What does it mean to be free? When you’re young, freedom is something you reach for. You want the freedom of your first car; the freedom of being able to stay out as late as you want; the freedom of getting into R-rated movies, or of buying a drink and having it be legal; the freedom of living on your own and deciding your own fate. For so long, that kind of freedom seems to represent some sort of boundless opportunity. But as you get older, the same unstructured, unbridled freedom starts to become less attractive. At some point, you might start to mistake it for aimlessness, or even loneliness. “The older you get, the more of your freedom you trade in, in order to have things around you that you care about,” Jason Isbell said when this album came out. It’s a wise observation from a wise songwriter, and the album is built around that concept. In the title track, the narrator isn’t working hard for freedom, but for something more than free. His idea of freedom is the promise of a bountiful afterlife. But “something more than free” can mean a lot of different things depending on who you are. It can mean finally being unshackled from a small town that stifled you, as in the heartbreaking “Speed Trap Town.” It can mean committing to another person so fiercely that you recognize you’ll never be just “you” again, as in “Flagship.” It can be deciding to raise a family and pledging years of your life to your kids, as in “Children of Children.” Or it can be knowing enough about what you want—and feeling confident enough in yourself—that you can muster up the courage to invite an old flame to run away with you, as in “The Life You Chose.” As is commonplace with Isbell, these songs are populated with vividly-sketched characters, all living lives that seem like they will just keep going after the music fades out. But what makes Something More Than Free such an emotionally gripping album is how personally invested Isbell seems in every song. The characters might be other people, but they often seem like shades of him, and like shades of his own definition of freedom. The result is an album that captures the warmth of family and stability while still reveling in the madness of youthful freedom, and in the sting of nostalgia for times that won’t come back and probably wouldn’t feel right if they did.

19. Chris Stapleton - Traveller

I’ve probably watched the video of Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake performing together at the 2015 CMAs upwards of 25 times, and it never gets old. Watching it back now, it all feels so natural and preordained. As in, “of course Chris Stapleton would be duetting with one of the biggest pop stars in the world.” Back then, on the night it first aired, the entire thing seemed wild. Stapleton was a country singer with no radio hits, limited sales, and no name recognition—at least in the mainstream world. Traveller was the top-ranked album of the year for every country blogger and “real country fan,” but it wasn’t a big commercial smash. Stapleton had gotten a bunch of CMA nominations, but it didn’t seem all that likely that he would win any of them. And he’d announced a performance slot with Justin Timberlake, which seemed bizarre to say the least. The performance, that first time, felt so electric. It was like you could sense the shift in the room at Bridgestone Arena the moment when Stapleton went from underdog to superstar. The looks on the faces of all the people in the crowd—these country music superstars, rocking out like fans at concert—were priceless, and made it so clear that this was Stapleton’s coming out party. He went on to win most of the big awards that night, including Album of the Year, and he deserved them. Traveller was and is a genuine classic. Stapleton wrote it after his father passed away, and he’s said that the songs distill the kind of music his old man would have loved: whiskey-drenched Memphis soul; hard-edged outlaw country; whisper-quiet folk ballads; soul-searching road trip tunes. It has the best five-song opening of any album this decade—a run, from the title track to “Whiskey and You,” that is so stop-you-in-your-tracks remarkable that you almost forgive the album for its second half bloat. Stapleton’s voice is the real star, from the long, drawn-out notes of “Fire Away” to the soulful runs of “Tennessee Whiskey,” all the way to the jaw-dropping live take of “Sometimes I Cry” that closes the record. But the song I always come back to is “Traveller,” one of the greatest-ever invocations of the road and all its heartbreaking, heart-mending majesty. “Every turn reveals some other road, and I’m a traveller,” goes the chorus. It’s one of my favorite lines of the decade, from an album that started out as a best-kept secret and turned into one of the biggest country LPs of the modern era. Sometimes, the good guys win.

20. Noah Gundersen - Lover

I’m not sure any artist bared their soul as much this decade as Noah Gundersen. Something about his art always seemed so viscerally honest to me, like he was writing the songs as stream-of-consciousness missives right from his own heart. Lover, somehow, is maybe his barest and most candid work. It’s a coming-of-age album from someone who felt like his world was tilting on its axis, and maybe even coming apart at the seams. Gundersen has gone on record about how hard the years between 2017’s White Noise and this album were on him. He dealt with personal issues, financial struggles, and more, along with the restless, love-hate relationship with his own art that has long driven him to grow and evolve. All that crisis could have created a tortured, emotionally fraught album, but Lover is actually the most at-peace Gundersen has ever sounded on record. He comes to terms with failure, with artistic frustration, and with his own restlessness. He writes big unabashed love songs, instead of just breakup songs. He reaches euphoric revelry, on the wonderfully out-of-character “All My Friends.” He excavates memories from the deepest recesses of his mind, bringing a haunting and dreamlike character to songs like “Watermelon” and “Audrey Hepburn.” After White Noise, which felt adventurous but occasionally self-conscious, it’s a miracle to hear Noah sound so unguarded and unvarnished once more. It’s the realization of everything his career has been building to so far: the intimacy of Ledges, the deep self-reflection of Carry the Ghost, and the genre-bending of White Noise, paired with a newfound maturity that only years can bring.

21. Maren Morris - Hero

The first time I heard Maren Morris, I knew she was a superstar. It was October 2015, months before Morris’s “My Church” would start to make waves on country radio and more than six months before Hero ever saw the light of day. But Morris had an EP out on Spotify, and as the last unseasonably warm days of the autumn wasted away, I remember blasting “80s Mercedes” and “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” out the screen door, into the beautiful outdoors. It wasn’t long before I was hearing “My Church” in grocery stores, or at the nearby salon while I was getting my hair cut. Before I knew it, Hero was upon us, ready to herald the summer of 2016—just as Morris’s EP had given a late sendoff to the summer of 2015. Fast-forward to now and Morris is the superstar I said she’d be: a star with number one hits on both the country charts and the pop charts, and someone with the chops to justify both titles. To me, though, Morris will always be the girl on this album: a confident, big-voiced Firestarter with plenty to prove and a boatload of hooks to get her where she wanted to go. Hero ping-pongs back and forth between gargantuan upbeat anthems (“Sugar,” “Rich,” the aforementioned “80s Mercedes”) and patiently wrought, impeccably sung ballads (“I Wish I Was,” “I Could Use a Love Song,” “Once”). Because country radio is a sexist cesspool, this album only spawned two big singles and one number one hit. If there had been any justice, though, just about every song on Hero would have been a smash. I’d submit that there wasn’t a catchier or more indelible pop album this decade. So what if Maren was country; on Hero, she outplayed every single pop superstar who dared to sketch out a release date in the 2010s.

22. Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands

Dawes were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of the 2010s. In a decade where rock largely receded back into the underground, these guys continued to carry the torch for classic-sounding, guitar-driven music while also always pushing the boundaries of what their sound could be. All Your Favorite Bands is their pinnacle, a record that is both wildly virtuosic and remarkably small-scale at the same time. Every Dawes album is great in its own way, but this is the one that approximates what it’s like to see them live. The band strikes a tightrope-walk balance between arrangements that feel spontaneous and improvised, and lyrics that are so clearly and meticulously wrought. In part, the album was a reaction to its predecessor—2013’s studio-heavy Stories Don’t End. While a splendid record in its own right, Stories felt distinctly more “modern” (and more overdubbed) than the albums that had made the Dawes name. The band responded by hiring producer Dave Rawlings—known for making sparse Americana music of his own—and stripping things back to their bare essentials. The magic of that decision is that the songs end up feeling like they’ve always been here. Songs like “Waiting for Your Call” and the marathon slow burn closer “Now That It’s Too Late, Maria” sound like classic cuts from a ‘70s LP that everyone has heard and everybody loves. But the best part is the title track, which plays like a rallying cry for everyone who loves music as much as the guys in this band. It’s a tribute to friendship and memories and good times and glances into a future that hopefully holds even more good times. “I hope the world sees the same person that you always were to me/And may all your favorite bands stay together,” frontman Taylor Goldsmith sings in the instant-classic chorus. It is the most genuinely good-natured lyric of the entire decade, and it never fails to put a smile on my face.

23. Logan Brill - Shuteye 

The weirdest concert I saw this decade was Logan Brill in the summer of 2017. Brill spent the decade making exceptionally listenable, extraordinarily well-sung country music that sadly went overlooked by the Nashville establishment. She’s the kind of artist who you would expect to be a regional touring act, and therefore the kind of artist I would never expect to see anywhere near northern Michigan. But there she was, in the lakeside community of Petoskey, Michigan, playing right on the shore as the sun went down on a July Saturday night. The crowd was minuscule—and mostly senior retirees—and the stage setup was barely more than what you’d expect to see at Shakespeare in the Park. But the music was remarkable. Something about Brill’s honeysuckle voice and her road-weary, lovelorn songs sounded so good set against the backdrop of a Lake Michigan summer sunset. I wasn’t surprised. I’d spent the two years leading up to that night being constantly beguiled by Shuteye, Brill’s second full-length LP and one of the all-around finest country albums to come out in the past 10 years. Brill has a habit of covering songs by artists I already like and making them even better. That happens repeatedly on this album, with staples like “The Bees” (originally sung by Lee Ann Womack), “Where Rainbows Never Die” (originally sung by Chris Stapleton, with his old band The SteelDrivers), and “Halfway Home” (written and later recorded by Lori McKenna). Brill somehow makes those songs blend into the overall canvas of Shuteye, a record about the travails of young adulthood. In these songs, Brill stumbles through one heartbreak after another, oscillating between resignation (“You don’t love me and the world’s still round”) and crushing disappointment (“I wish you loved me as much as you don’t”). It’s a record about searching for the one and repeatedly not finding him—but about getting up again and trying one more time, hoping that this one will do the trick. The way Brill sings the songs—with a weathered sense of hope—is enough to break your heart. On that summer Saturday night in 2017, what broke my heart was seeing an artist who should be headlining amphitheaters or arenas singing for a group of less than 100 people. Maybe someday, the rest of the world will wise up to what a remarkable talent Logan Brill is. Until then, I’ll count Shuteye among the great unheralded classics of the 2010s.

24. U2 - Songs of Experience 

Songs of Experience is the rare sequel that improves upon its predecessor in every way. 2014’s Songs of Innocence was a very solid U2 album that excavated bits and pieces of the band’s past—from their coming-of-age stories to their early influences—and built them into a story of the stumbles and triumphs of growing up. If there was a problem with the record, it was U2’s full-hearted belief that they could still have a place in the pop consciousness. The songs were produced with radio in mind, and U2 were even so bold as to Trojan Horse the thing into 500 million iTunes accounts. Songs of Experience is a whole different animal. It’s the sound of a veteran band coming to terms with their place in the industry and being secure enough with their legacy to get real and go dark, rather than try to play the pop game. The result is the band’s best album since All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and one of the most masterfully constructed of their entire career. It is a gripping exploration of mortality, legacy, family, and the things we leave behind when we’re gone. Inspired by a near-death experience that Bono had in 2016, Songs of Experience sounds hungrier and more enlivened than records made by artists 30 or 40 years younger than the guys in the band. Of course, it would hardly be a U2 album without a few politically-leaning tracks thrown in. But the ones that feature here—the apocalyptic “Blackout,” or the cleverly devastating “Summer of Love”—sound surprisingly vital and razor-sharp. Still, it’s the personal stuff that really soars: songs like “Lights of Home,” a thrilling rocker about facing up to your own transience; or “13 (There Is a Light),” a missive written for Bono’s children, in case he shouldn’t be here to pass down his wisdom in person. That was the mission statement for this album: saying everything you’d want to say to the people you love in case you don’t wake up tomorrow. The resulting album is sometimes grim and occasionally nightmarish, but it’s also a big, bold celebration of life, love, and human connection. Those messages are carried forth by “The Little Things That Give You Away” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way,” two titanic, life-affirming anthems as good as any stadium rock songs from this millennium. It turns out that, even when they’re singing about the darkness of our modern world and the big, endless expanse of death, U2 still sing every word to the cheap seats.

25. The Killers - Battle Born

Battle Born is the sound of one of the biggest bands in the world finally being comfortable in their skin. For so much of their career, The Killers have either been trying to prove something to someone or trying to prove someone wrong. Time and time again, they’ve showed themselves to be too sensitive to the words of critics, pivoting stylistically on Day & Age after backlash around Sam’s Town, and retreating for years after a similarly cool reception for Battle Born. Brandon Flowers himself even joined the choir eventually, writing off this album and insisting his band could “do better.” Ironically, neither he nor they ever have. Battle Born may not be as iconic as Hot Fuss or as much of a cult classic as Sam’s Town, but it’s the one album in The Killers’ discography that feels removed from the whims and expectations of critics and haters. Here, rather than worrying about seeming “cool” or being liked by everyone, The Killers made an unabashedly huge and earnest arena rock record. If any band from the 2000s indie surge was going to be the next U2, it was going to be The Killers, and this album sounded like them applying for the job. They threw every classic rock influence they had at these songs: U2, Springsteen, Queen, The Velvet Underground, Elton John, Meat Loaf, The Eagles, Journey. They also brought in five producers and a small army’s worth of additional musicians, mixers, and other personnel. The result could easily have been a mess, but I actually think that Battle Born is the most cohesive Killers album. Sonically, it sounds so massive and triumphant that it’s almost hard to believe there’s more to the songs than empty bombast. But during my senior year of college, I found surprising amounts of comfort in these songs. “From here on out, friends are gonna be hard to come by,” Flowers sings at one point—a line that always punched me in the gut. It still does. After college wound down, my friend group scattered. I’m lucky to see most people from high school or college once a year. And making new friends is hard, once those shared experiences of school and parties and dorm rooms or apartments is removed. This album, to me, always felt like a look back at those younger and more open days of human connection, blasted through the prism of romantic escapes into the desert and Elvis singing “Don’t Be Cruel” over the radio. Once those good ol’ days are gone, what do you do? Flowers and co. didn’t have the answers, but they sure made all the doubt and regret sound grandiose.

26. The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten

My parents never had air conditioning when I was growing up, and to this day, they still don’t. Usually, that was fine: we threw open the windows and let summer breezes cool our house naturally. But on the really hot days—the ones where the temperatures soared into the 90s or 100s—it was hard to sleep at night, let alone spend much time in the house during the day. The day I first heard Handwritten was one such occurrence: the hottest day in the hottest summer I can remember in my hometown. This album was my number one most anticipated record of the year, and I wanted nothing more than to spend the afternoon and evening absorbing its songs and embedding them on the walls of my soul. But I couldn’t stand to stay in the sweltering house all evening, so I loaded these 11 songs onto my iPod (12, if you count “Blue Dahlia”) and drove to the beach three miles down the road. After a dive into the water, I sat at a picnic table in the mostly empty park and watched the sunset over the bay. Suddenly, that impossibly hot summer night felt remarkably beautiful, and these tunes only opened it up further. Songs like “45” and “Howl” were gargantuan anthems, ideal for the larger-than-life expectations I always had for my summers back when I was still in college and not working full-time yet. And as a nighttime chill started to steal into the air, letting me know that it was time to leave the beach and head back home, the album segued beautifully into the downbeat finale of “Mae” and “National Anthem.” Collectively, those songs told the story of that summer: driving fast to get to work on time; sneaking drinks from behind the bar with my coworkers after we closed up shop for the night; feeling the scorching hot nights give way to the almost autumnal vibes of late August evenings. It was the perfect soundtrack to my last summer of pure, unbridled freedom, and for those long hot nights spent waiting for kingdom come with the radio on.

27. Natalie Hemby - Puxico

Remember when you were a kid and your family would pile into the minivan or SUV or station wagon and drive off for a weeklong summer vacation? Remember going back to the same places every summer, and starting to see them differently as you got older and earned more freedom? Remember what it was like to get off the grid before we all had cellphones or laptops or tablets? Remember coming back from those trips and feeling changed somehow, like the experiences you’d had were shared secret with your family that nobody else got to know? I don’t know if those types of adventures are possible anymore. Maybe they still are when you’re young, before you figure out technology and social media. Maybe they are if you have kids and make an active attempt to recreate the vacation experiences from your youth. But they’re harder to come by in our always-connected world. Puxico brings them back. Natalie Hemby, a top Nashville songwriter, wrote this record about her old summertime destination, but the songs are open enough for you to fill them in with your experiences. It’s a record about long drives, summer nights, Ferris wheels, and parades. It calls to mind days spent at the carnival when you were young, or moments stolen with a crush or summer fling when you found yourself on the cusp of adulthood. Most of all, it’s about the places that make such an impression on us that they feel like home in our hearts—even if they never were.

28. Ruston Kelly - Dying Star 

In the liner notes of Dying Star, Ruston Kelly talks about the long, dark journey that led to the creation of the album. It was a journey fraught with drinking, drugs, bad choices, wrecked relationships, and long corridors of regret. The album chronicles it all in unflinching detail, evoking the sting of titanic hangovers, the emptiness of a millionth lonely night, and the punch of regret that comes six seconds too late after another self-destructive tirade. Kelly found the strength to write these songs and go to this personal place after two things happened to him. First, he fell in love and got married—to country music star Kacey Musgraves. Second, he overdosed and came within a stone’s throw of dying. In the liner notes, he said he knew very shortly after that incident that he would call his album Dying Star, and that it would sound something like this—like an oppressively long, hazy night and the light that finally starts to break on the horizon at the end of it. It’s as sad an album as anyone made this decade, radiating the kind of palpable pain that only comes through on songs when you know an artist has lived it completely. It’s not an album I can listen to often, just because songs like “Anchors” and “Just for the Record” hurt a little too much to be in regular rotation. But every time I hear Dying Star, it bowls me over again. Sure, the pain comes through, but so does the resilience.

29. Butch Walker - The Spade

Let’s make rock ‘n’ roll fun again. That was more or less the mission statement that Butch Walker and his Black Widows set out for themselves on The Spade. Everything about this record hearkened back to a time when rock could be bright and epic and self-deprecating and massively celebratory, all in one. The Spade played like Butch had taken the ethos of Dazed & Confused and put it through an amplifier. It was no accident that Matthew McConaughey reprised his role as Wooderson for the music video of “Synthesizers.” This album might as well have been a conceptual piece chronicling the first day and night of a high school summer vacation. The clearest example was “Summer of ’89,” which packs debauchery and dreams and the restlessness of growing up into a big, full-throated sing-along—all while also managing some thoughtful hindsight nostalgia. But the whole album has that vibe: of cheap beer and half-smoked blunts and blown car speakers still pumping out the one CD anyone cared to listen to—this one. There are still highly resonant and introspective songwriter moments: the dusky “Closest Thing to You I’m Gonna Find” is a perfect, wisecracking twist on a breakup song, while the bursting, cathartic “Day Drunk” was the first song Butch wrote about coming to terms with his father’s illness and mortality. But The Spade ends with “Bullet Belt,” a riotous shot-slamming barnburner, and then with “Suckerpunch,” a song literally about getting punched out at a bar. In a decade where rock ‘n’ roll became too timid, too self-conscious, too polite, The Spade was a middle finger to everybody not brave enough to strap on a guitar, turn the amps up to eleven, and let it rip like we were all living in a Richard Linklater teen movie. It is arguably the greatest straight rock LP of the decade.

30. John Mayer - Born and Raised

John Mayer had a rough start to the decade. He spent the first part of it grappling with backlash over offensive and inexcusable comments made in a 2010 Playboy interview. Then, after receding from public life, he struggled with a vocal condition that sidelined him for the better part of two years. Those travails pushed Mayer to craft Born and Raised, arguably the most reflective and clear-eyed album of his entire career. It was also a musical pivot, jumping from the nighttime blues-inflected pop of 2009’s Battle Studies to something that straddled the line between blues, folk, and country. On certain days, I’d call the result my very favorite John Mayer album. Continuum is “better,” and Heavier Things will always hold a place nearer and dearer to my heart for its status as the first album I ever bought with my own money. But Born and Raised was the album that made me think John Mayer could feasibly do anything and do it well. Crosby, Stills, & Nash style folk-rock? He pulls it off on “Queen of California.” Irish-folk rave-ups? See “Age of Worry.” Nuanced allegorical story songs? “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967” is a masterclass of the form. Ringing, Coldplay-esque arena rock? Mayer ventures there for the first time on “A Face to Call Home.” Stylistically, Born and Raised is like Continuum in that it is both wildly diverse and so authentic sounding that you think you’re listening to a decades-old classic. But the album’s true magic trick is its reflective, melancholy mood, which sees Mayer dissembling his own identity and trying to figure out where everything went wrong. At some point, we all reach a moment of society-imposed maturity—a moment when we’re “born and raised” instead of “growing up.” That moment forces a reckoning: with your dreams and expectations for life, with your conception of what the future might look like, and with the mistakes and regrets that you must learn to accept, atone for, and live with. Mayer’s exploration of those ideas is deeply human, fraught with fear and remorse but still holding on to hope that things might be brighter a little further on down the road.

31. Yellowcard - Southern Air

You have summers all your life, but you only have summers when you’re young. If you grew up in a place where summer was the season you lived for, then you know what I’m talking about. Sticking out the grueling winters with the knowledge that hot, sunny days would surely come again. Counting down the weeks in the spring, waiting for that first day when the temperature went above 50 so you could roll down your windows, crank the volume, and pretend it was already July. Making every waking minute of every August day and night count, because you knew Labor Day was coming way too soon. More than maybe any other band, Yellowcard understood what made a summer a summer. Songs like “Ocean Avenue” and “Miles Apart” defined a certain brand of beachside pop-punk that sounded perfect on teenage mixtapes traded during summer flings. Southern Air was the pinnacle of that sound, and the end of it. Because you can only have summers when you’re young, and we all have to grow up eventually. This album plays like a send-up of one last youthful summer, before they shut off the lights and close down the lifeguard stands and tell everyone to go home. You can still feel the sunburn of a carefree summer day in these songs—in the big gaping hooks of songs like “Here I Am Alive”—but you can also feel the autumn chill creeping in. There’s a sense of time running short, of knowing that you only have a few more nights in this town to do everything you were supposed to do this summer. And then, when it’s over, it’s over. The title track and album closer lays youth to rest in a rush of guitars and drums, raising a glass to all the wonderful chaos of childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. For Yellowcard, this album was a farewell to pop-punk and to the summertime sound they’d built their brand on. For me, it was a pitch-perfect soundtrack to my last true-blue youthful summer. When I think back to those seasons now—to their spontaneity and unpredictability and complete freedom—they seem so far off. Somehow, more than seven years have gone by since I packed up the car and drove away from my hometown toward my final year of college, this album playing on my iPod. But the great thing is that those seasons and everything they meant to you are never really gone. Because as Ryan Key sings on this album, “it’s always summer in my heart and in my soul.”

32. Will Hoge - Never Give In

Never Give In is Will Hoge at the peak of his songcraft. Caught somewhere between the Springsteenian heartland rock of 2009’s The Wreckage and the mainstream country of 2015’s Small Town Dreams—and bearing none of the overwrought political leanings of 2011’s Number Seven or 2012’s Modern American Protest Music EP—Never Give In is the tightest, tautest, and arguably best album Hoge has ever made. In the fall of 2013, during an unseasonably warm September and October in Chicago, there was very little else I wanted to play. I gravitated toward the hooks first, immediately falling for the infectious, soaring melodies of songs like “A Different Man” and “Goodbye Ain’t Always Gone.” But the more I listened, the more I realized just how much story and pathos Hoge was packing into these concise little rock songs. These tracks are like clockwork, almost all of them falling in the 3:00 to 3:30 range. They balance the “get to the chorus” mentality with a country storyteller’s eye for detail, to stunning and addictive results. The title track is a chiming hymn to the resilience of a strong marriage. “Home Is Where the Heart Breaks” is a redemptive rock song about an unhappy childhood bleeding over into the hard knocks of adulthood. “Daddy Was a Gambling Man” is a classic country weeper with some of the best turns of phrase of any country song this decade. “Bad Old Days” is a 90s-esque slice of roots-rock (think The Wallflowers’ “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls”), about a time in your life when you didn’t have much money but had a lot of freedom and the willingness to take a chance. “Damn Spotlight (Julia’s Song)” is a stirring indictment of the touring lifestyle. And “Strong,” the bonus track, is the greatest song ever used in a Chevy trucks ad campaign. These songs were so striking, so easy to listen to, and so innately well-crafted that I instinctively dropped Never Give In at the top of my favorite albums list in 2013. It hasn’t had the same grip on me as some other albums from that year—particularly Jason Isbell’s more nuanced, soul-bearing Southeastern. But Never Give In remains one of the most perfect albums I heard in the last 10 years. It’s the rare album where not a single word or note is out of place, where there’s no slump in quality or pacing, and where every song feels tightly-wound and carefully wrought without losing its human touch. Hoge has made more emotive albums, and he’s maybe even made albums that are nearer and dearer to my heart, but he’s never made a better album.

33. Dawes - Stories Don't End 

“If you’re telling a story, at some point you stop, but stories don’t end.” Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith sings those words in the title track of his band’s grand, impressive third full-length. It’s a simple lyric, but one that scans more profoundly the more you consider it. “They go on and on,” Goldsmith intones later; “Just someone stops listening.” Eventually, the people monitoring the tale of your life fall by the wayside. At some point, even the characters in the story seem to drop out. Such is the story of growing up: a story of losing friends and acquaintances, and of shedding the locals and parents-of-friends who might have been interested in following your story in the abstract. High school celebrities become has-beens. Rising college stars become slaves to the grind. Everyone eventually gets humbled in some way or another. The idea of everyone listening to your story when you’re young but slowly losing interest is, on the one hand, heartbreaking. Everyone wants to feel like they are worthy of another person’s attention. But there is also something so freeing about being onstage in an empty theater, knowing that your life is the purview of nobody else but you. That’s what this album is about: the freedom to cut lose and stretch yourself and reach beyond what’s expected. Falling in love with these songs, just a month or two before my college graduation, that theme hit me hard. “Most people don’t talk enough about how lucky they are,” Goldsmith sings in another highlight. What could be luckier than having the absolute freedom to write your own story? Years later, I’ve got the answer: nothing.

34. The Horrible Crowes - Elsie

Up to this point, we’d only really known Brian Fallon as the Boss-worshipping, punk-influenced rock ‘n’ roll frontman of The Gaslight Anthem. The Gaslight records were big, bold, loud, and throwback, capturing a certain style of redemptive rock music that had largely become the stuff of a bygone era. It wasn’t until Elsie, though, that we really started getting a glimpse of what Fallon was capable of. Instead of excavating his own nostalgia even further, Fallon took a deep dive into the dark heart of a dream. From the opening shudder of “Last Rites” to the slow-burn, contemplative closer “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together,” Elsie sounds like the story of one sleepless, otherworldly night. It’s a night fraught with haunted memories and cheating lovers, with crime and with loneliness. “If I drove straight off this bridge/Only God and my baby would know,” Brian sings in “Cherry Blossoms.” In “Ladykiller,” he equates heaven with being able to sleep through the night. In “Blood Loss,” his first love isn’t just a heartbreaker, but an arsonist, and even a murderer. And in “I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together,” Brian is the killer, unlikely to get into heaven for all the bad things he’s done. These stark lyrical images are like fever dreams, trading all the blaring hope of the Gaslight records for something dark and bloody and tinged with nagging doubt. It’s a bold flex for Fallon, in the midst, at this point, of an incredible career run. It’s also one of a kind: a Waits-ian collection of stories that you’d expect to hear from a drunk at 2 a.m. at the bar on a Wednesday morning. Fallon would never make another Horrible Crowes record, and frankly, it’s fitting that Elsie stands by itself. Just like the characters in the songs, the album is defined by its crushing, irredeemable solitude. 

35. Sara Bareilles - Kaleidoscope Heart

“Car is parked, bags are packed/But what kind of heart doesn’t look back/At the comfortable glow from the porch, the one I will still call yours?” Those words from “Breathe Again” have never failed to tear me to pieces. They so vividly describe a very specific moment, of preparing to walk away from a person (or a place, or a thing, or maybe all three) knowing that, this time, the goodbye is final. The song is about a breakup, about a girl trying to will herself toward the moment when she’ll understand that the guy she’s letting go of isn’t her oxygen, isn’t essential for her to keep living. But “Breathe Again” is caught in a moment before that realization, when you’re stuck in the tempest of the goodbye and only capable of feeling the ache. Bareilles is a remarkable talent in that she can always make you feel that ache with her, like you’re right back to 17, saying goodbye to your first love, or to your home, or to friends you’re not sure you’ll ever see again. It’s a talent she uses multiple times on Kaleidoscope Heart, especially on “Breathe Again,” or on the gutting acoustic heartbreaker “Basket Case.” But she’s also an explorer, using her then-new status as a smash-hit pop star to indulge her every whim. The result is aptly named: a kaleidoscope of emotions and moods and styles, flitting from deliriously catchy pop songs to ballads that break you down and bring you back to earth. You can count on one hand the pop records from the last 10 years that are better.

36. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer, Different Park

At the beginning, Kacey Musgraves seemed like an outsider. Before critics wised up, before she landed a slot on a world-conquering tour with Harry Styles, long before she won an Album of the Year Grammy, she gave the world this album: a breath of fresh air in a rapidly stagnating country music scene. 2013 was the year Florida Georgia Line blew up and the so-called “bro-country” movement really took root. Kacey broke the rules, singing songs about smoking weed and kissing girls and one-night stands and hometowns that are as shitty as the cheating neighbors next door. This record was radical. It was a gentle rebuke of all the usual “life is good” tropes that mainstream country music loves to repeat. It was one of the first albums that made me see just how much beauty there might be hiding under the surface of a genre I had always liked but never explored fully. I remember playing “Merry Go Round” over and over on that first day, beguiled by Kacey’s sweet-as-honey voice and how achingly sad it sounded on this song about burnt-out hometowns. Everything about that song was and is perfect. The way it packs all this pathos and pain into a play on a nursery rhyme is a flawless microcosm of why the best country songwriters are still the best songwriters we have, period. Most people loved the songs that showcased Kacey’s snark and wit: middle-finger barnstormers like “Step Off” and “Stupid” and “Blowin’ Smoke.” Everyone loved “Follow Your Arrow,” one of the first country songs that actively supported gay rights. I personally adored the songs like “Keep It to Yourself” and “Back on the Map,” where Kacey let her guard down and made heartbreak sound like the most beautiful thing in the world. When I wrote my blurb for the album on my “Best of 2013” list, I mused about looking back at this album a few years down the road and seeing it “as the birth of a star.” I am so happy I was right.

37. Yellowcard - Lift a Sail

In the eyes of many fans, Lift a Sail is where Yellowcard “lost it.” It’s where the band finally shed their pop-punk roots, where they stopped making albums packed with summer anthems, and where they fired long-time member (and skilled drummer) LP Parsons. But Lift a Sail became one of the Yellowcard albums that meant the most to me largely because of when it came out. This record officially dropped five days after my Grandpa died, and I remember playing the advance stream repeatedly in the lead-up to his passing. Instantly, these songs took shape around that event. They seemed to speak to the ache of my grief, and to the magnitude of his presence in my life that was now gone. “You can’t know the way it feels to lose something so fragile and dear to you”; “Do you picture me? What do you see? Maybe a future full of unwritten things”; “I’ve left myself in every song, in every note”; “All these mornings turn into brand new days, everything still hurts, you’re so far away”; “If a storm blows in on me, I am ready now.” I collected little bits of these songs on every listen, drawing upon the lyrics like little notes found in the coat pockets and desk drawers of a lost loved one. They seemed like messages from him: to wear my grief as a talisman—as a tribute to my ability to love so deeply—and to carry it with me as I faced the next storm of unwritten days and months and years. The album’s meandering, experimental song structures baffled some fans, but they felt so right to me, because journeying through them felt like wading across rivers of faded memories to find moments of treasured truth. Pop-punk fans might not understand Lift a Sail, but for me, it’s an album that never fails to put tears in my eyes.

38. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness - Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness

There’s a way the world sounds when you’re about to leave something monumental behind. It sounds like the final frames of a movie, or like a TV show in full tear-jerking season finale mode. It sounds like your life flashing before your eyes, in a rapid flipbook of memories too fast to register anything specific but slow enough for you to take in the scope of everything that’s come before. And it sounds like “Maps for the Getaway,” the last and greatest song on Andrew McMahon’s first album under the Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness moniker. The album itself is a form of taking stock. McMahon said he wanted to end the Jack’s Mannequin project, after 2011’s People & Things, because that story was so tied up in his battle with cancer. With the Wilderness era, he wanted to move on: to let go of that scary, tumultuous time of his life and embrace new stories. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is the sound of forging on after a near-death experience and marveling at the beauty of the world. It’s a record about family and the joys Andrew found, of being able to have a family after nearly having his own story cut to black prematurely. But it’s also refracted through prisms of the past, in such a way that it reflects just as much where our protagonist has been as where he’s going. “Maps for the Getaway” is the most sobering vow to move forward. The first line of the song is “Parked outside the house we used to live,” and that’s precisely where Andrew wrote most of the words—sitting in a car, parked on the street, right outside the house where he resided post-cancer. The lyrics reflect on the days spent between those four walls, making tentative attempts to move on, daring to hope that maybe the battle had really been won. “Through all the autopilot years, the tears of joy, the face of fear.” Those words, the way Andrew sings them, the melody of the verses, it all sounds melancholy, like the pain from the old wound that is nostalgia. But then the chorus propels things forward: “No cash in the bank, no paid holidays/All we have, all we have is/Gas in the tank, maps for the getaway.” All we have are mornings in bed together. All we have are cups of coffee to wake us up on workdays, or aspirin pills to dull the ache of a hangover on weekends. All we have is the mundane, and the incalculably beautiful. “All we have is time.” As Andrew leaves behind that old house, those memories, those old fears, the chapter of his life that might have been the last one, he sings those words over and over again. “All we have is time.” The line, the song, and the album remind us to keep moving forward, to cherish what we have, to revel in the little intricacies that make life worth living, and to take the second chances when they come. Time, as Andrew McMahon has shown us through his life and his art, is the most valuable asset any of us will ever have.

39. Dawes - Nothing Is Wrong 

Here it is: the start of arguably the greatest album run of the last 10 years. Dawes arrived on the scene in 2009 with an acclaimed but little-heard album called North Hills. It was a record so steeped in Laurel Canyon folk rock traditions—specifically the sound of Jackson Browne—that it was almost difficult to believe it had come out in 2009 and not 1976. But Nothing Is Wrong, to me, is the real coming out party for Dawes. It paired the very folky sound of the debut album with a little extra rock punch, added a dose of self-awareness (Jackson Browne himself sings backing vocals on a track), and boasted some of the sturdiest tunes of the decade. The result is a scenic, colorful burst of sound—a record that conveys everything from L.A. streets to Hollywood canyons to kaleidoscope sunsets to the calming glow of moonlight on ocean waters. “You’ve got a special kind of sadness, you’ve got that tragic set of charms/That only comes from time spent in Los Angeles/Makes me want to wrap you in my arms,” sings Taylor Goldsmith on the opening track. It’s one of many timeless, incredibly great lines on this record—a line so good that it immediately makes you pay attention. Goldsmith did that over and over again on Nothing Is Wrong—sometimes with his guitar (the chasmic “My Way Back Home”), sometimes with his voice (the poignantly vulnerable “Moon on the Water”), but always with his words (“A Little Bit of Everything,” a hymn to the complexity of life, and to all the lightness and darkness it can bring). The rest of the band is incredible too, or the album wouldn’t work—let alone as such a convincing send-up of when record-making involved people who could play actual instruments going into a room and banging out something that did justice to their talents. But the album would be nothing—and neither would the incredible run that Dawes have had since—if Goldsmith weren’t such a remarkable talent. Pound for pound, he might be the greatest songwriter we have right now, and Nothing Is Wrong was his proof of concept.

40. Lori McKenna - The Tree

The Tree is about a lot of things, but most of all, I think it’s about the inevitable onslaught of time. The years will fly by. Babies will grow into kids who turn into teenagers who graduate high school and drive off in their hatchbacks toward college and new lives of independence. Some people you love will get old. Some people you love won’t get the chance to get old. Summers will fly by and youth will fade. The passion of young love will dim with time, sometimes being forged in that hot, fierce fire into something that can stand the test of time; sometimes burning out entirely. “Houses need paint, winters bring snow/Nothing says ‘love’ like a band of gold/Babies grow up and houses get sold/And that’s how it goes/Time is a thief, pain is a gift/The past is the past, it is what it is/Every line on your face tells a story somebody knows/That’s just how it goes/You live long enough and the people you love get old.” Nobody has unlimited time. Nobody gets to slow down the years or anchor their loved ones to the corporeal world forever. The Tree reckons with that impermanence in complex and often wrenching ways. But it also finds the beauty in it. “People Get Old” somehow manages to encapsulate the beautiful whirlwind of a passing life into less than four minutes; “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s” sees a young couple basking in the rays of summer love, hiding out from September for as long as they can; and “The Way Back Home” is a reminder that you can always go back—even if houses do get sold and “home” to you ends up being less about a place and more about your memories or your values or the people you love. Living can seem long sometimes, but life is short. On The Tree, Lori McKenna is giving listeners the kick in the ass they need to cherish every sweet piece of it while they still can.

41. The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars

No band burned brighter for a shorter period of time this decade than The Civil Wars. For two albums, Joy Williams and John Paul White made impossibly beautiful music together, entwining their souls with gorgeous harmonies and songs that seemed to speak directly to the heart. By the time 2013 wound around, though, there was a schism in the duo. They’d seen a meteoric rise following the success of 2011’s Barton Hollow, as well as “Safe and Sound,” their collaboration with Taylor Swift from The Hunger Games soundtrack. By all accounts, it seemed like they were just getting started. As it turned out, they were hurtling toward a wall at breakneck speed, ensuring a fractious collision that would leave no survivors. The Civil Wars was maybe the most aptly self-titled record of all time, because there was a civil war going on in the songs themselves. The album should have taken Williams and White to another plane; instead, it was their farewell party. They canceled their tour before the record even came out, and they have not played together in any fashion since. And you didn’t have to apply all that subtext to the songs, because it was already there. “I wish you were the one that got away”; “I had me a girl, like cigarette smoke/She came and she went”; “I’m gonna break things, I’m gonna cross the line/And make you wake up, ‘cause you won’t.” So much of this record plays out like a passive-aggressive argument between two people, but those flashes of bitterness are intercut with moments of genuine love and pleas for connection. “Same Old, Same Old” is literally about saving a romantic relatioship that has gone stagnant, while “Dust to Dust” is about the lonely walls you put up around your heart to protect yourself from getting hurt. “Eavesdrop,” meanwhile, chronicles a moment of tenderness and sexual intensity between two people who know their relationship won’t last, but are willing to forget that fact—and everything else—for just one night beneath sensual moonlight. The record luxuriates in this push and pull—between love and loathing, between passion and pain, between trying to save something and kicking it to the curb, hard. It almost makes sense that it stalls out three-quarters of the way through, stuttering to an adequate but not-entirely-satisfying conclusion. Just like the couple in “Eavesdrop,” The Civil Wars could only last for a little while. But what a beautiful while it was.

42. John Moreland - High on Tulsa Heat

High on Tulsa Heat. I always loved that title. Loved it. From the very first time I heard John Moreland’s sad, sweet voice, I had a vision in my mind of what I wanted this album to be: a set of nighttime confessionals, intended for sweltering evenings in the barrooms or on the backroads of small-town middle America. High on Tulsa Heat answered in spades. For Moreland, Tulsa—and the other locales featured in these songs, from Cherokee to Cleveland County—are places filled with ghosts. I never knew for sure what “High on Tulsa Heat” meant, but I’d like to think it has to do with the sweet, sad intoxication of nostalgia that often sets in on summer nights after dark, when you’re lonely with not even the air conditioning to keep you company. These songs are certainly lonesome. “Cherokee” finds the narrator roaming the streets of the town where he grew up, remembering a girl who is long gone. “I don’t think I’ve missed you this much since I was seventeen,” Moreland sings in the first verse, before following it up with a line that might hurt even more: “I’d call you in the morning, but I think this is a dream.” That might be the most painful part of nostalgia: going back to old haunts, remembering the times you spent there with your friends or significant others, wanting to pick up the phone to call them and reminisce. But knowing that a lot of years of silence have stacked up between you—enough years to make calling weird; enough years to make you strangers. High on Tulsa Heat is the kind of record you want to hear in moments like that: a transmission from a soul as lonely as yours. Dim the lights, pour yourself a glass of whiskey, and focus on Moreland’s beautiful, mournful voice. At the right moment, I doubt any record from the past 10 years would sound better.

43. Taylor Swift - 1989

When Taylor Swift announced she would be releasing her “first documented, official pop album,” I was a little nervous. Sure, Swift had already proven that she could do pop well without a lot of country twang attached, in songs like “22” or “Red” or “The Story of Us.” But I also worried about her veering too far toward modern pop production trends (spoiler alert: she did just that on Reputation), or losing some of her diaristic voice in the move toward streamlined radio-pop dynamics. It’s a testament to Swift’s immense talent and her innate understanding of what makes good pop songs good that she avoided most of the landmines. Largely, 1989 is a delight. It allows Taylor to churn out her stickiest hooks of all time (the iconic “Style,” or the whoever-didn’t-make-this-a-single-should-get-fired jam that is  “All You Had to Do Was Stay”) while also maintaining an authorial identity that is completely and utterly her. On “Blank Space,” Taylor gleefully satirizes and skewers her own tabloid image, while songs like “I Know Places” and “Out of the Woods” stand as darker examinations of being the girl no one will ever leave the fuck alone. And remarkably, the moments of vulnerability here end up feeling even rawer and barer than the stuff on Red or Speak Now. Songs like “This Love” and “Clean” put Taylor about one verse shy of a breakdown—frustrated at the end of another broken relationship, wondering if she’ll be lonely forever, ready to start blaming herself and her own stupid fame for making love so goddamn hard. 1989 was a massive monocultural juggernaut that somehow managed to take Taylor Swift to an even higher plane than she’d reached before. But the best thing about it is just how human it is underneath all the hooks and studio sheen. 

44. Donovan Woods - Both Ways

Shortly before Christmas 2018, we found out that my Grandma had laryngeal cancer. Even considering her age—91 at the time of the diagnosis—the news came as a shock to me. We’d lost my grandpa four years earlier and that blow had hit so much harder than I ever would have expected. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my Grandma too, but my sister, a doctor training to be a specialist ENT, told me and my family to brace for bad news. She thought, given the severity of the diagnosis, and my Grandma’s age, that we wouldn’t get more than a few more months with her. Even before all this, I’d chosen Donovan Woods’ Both Ways as my traditional “Christmas Eve” album—the record I play on the way to and from my wife’s parents’ house for holiday brunch and gifts. And while Both Ways is not completely about mortality—there are lots of songs about love and breakups and memories good and bad—the song that I gravitated to that day was the “Next Year,” the closing track. I remember driving back home, toward Christmas festivities with my family, hearing the last verse of that song and thinking only about my Grandma. “My old man/He was fading fast/He said I think I’d like to go see that Grand Canyon/So we just left/Packed up the car and went/I called in sick to work/We drove ‘til 3 a.m./There ain’t no next year” Woods sings. The song is about the natural human tendency to kick things down the road. How many of us have said “We’ll do it next year” about a big trip we have planned, or about visiting our loved ones, or about getting the whole family together for a big reunion? This song forces us to confront the bullshit behind those statements. “It’s never quite next year” is the punchline of the chorus…at least until that last verse, when the narrator realizes that there might not be a next year for his dad. Hearing that verse in the car on Christmas Eve, wondering if my Grandma would be around for Christmas a year later, wrecked me. I was weeping in the front seat of my car in a way that only five or six other songs have made me cry this decade. It reminded me of how pure music can be, and of how sometimes, the lessons you most need to learn are right there in the lyrics you’ve been listening to for months. Not many weeks later, my wife and I piled into the car and drove six hours south to spend a weekend with my Grandma. Because even if there is a next year—and for her, it turned out there was—those next years are finite. So call off work, shirk your responsibilities, and go see that Grand Canyon. You’re not going to regret a few missed dollars or getting chewed out by your boss for being away too long; you’re sure as hell going to regret not spending time with the people you love while you can.

45. Jimmy Eat World - Integrity Blues

I fell in love with Jimmy Eat World’s music on crisp, cold fall nights in 2004. Something about Futures and how it made the night sound—lonely, but with an edge of hope—completely reconfigured the way I listened to and thought about music. Integrity Blues is, to date, the closest they have come to recreating that feeling. Some of my first listens to this album were in a car, on a rainy highway, driving alone well after midnight, in the early fall of 2016. I couldn’t have imagined a better setting for these songs to come alive. They were beautiful but foreboding, breaking but not broken, alone but not lonely. Songs like “It Matters” and “Through” and “Pol Roger” capture the last breaths of a failing relationship, but not in the way you would expect. Jimmy Eat World hail from a genre full of break-up songs and are frankly no strangers to break-up songs themselves. But Integrity Blues is more complex than being “just a break-up album.” Instead, on this album, the break-up is just one piece of the puzzle. Hell, the relationship itself is just one small corner of the puzzle. The album is broader than that. It takes into account the things that shape our identities and our directions and our outlooks on the world. It recognizes a truth that most people are too shortsighted to see: that we are all works in progress. We’re constantly reaching for the next thing: the next goal, or the next milestone, or the next professional accomplishment. We think these things will make us happy or make us complete, and maybe they do for a few days or months or years. Occasionally, maybe we find things that redefine the way we think of happiness—things that become truly essential in our lives. But even with these things, we are constantly building and tearing down and rebuilding again, trying to find contentment or satisfaction or whatever nebulous thing might make life a little brighter. Throughout the songs that make up Integrity Blues, frontman Jim Adkins—or whichever character he’s playing—makes the astonishing decision to stop searching. He starts the record aching for something more. “The clever ways I try to change/Happen and pass, leaving me the same,” he sings in “Sure and Certain,” a song about spending your life wandering in search of some concept of perfection you will never find. But he ends the record enlightened, learning to be comfortable by himself and truly content in his own skin, with his in-progress self. “First they’ll think you’re lost, but you’re not” he sings, a reminder not to let other people’s opinions or judgments define you. It’s a freeing and cathartic moment, and it calls back to the song that made Jimmy Eat World famous in the first place: the one that went “Live right now, just be yourself/It doesn’t matter if that’s good enough for someone else.”

46. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver

The first Bon Iver record was a legendary winter classic. How could it be anything else when the whole mythology of the album was rooted in a cold, remote Wisconsin cabin? The most surprising heel turn of the decade, then, may have been Justin Vernon turning around and making a second record that sounded like a muggy summer night. Or maybe that’s just the ambiance I apply to the record because of when I first heard it. I vividly recall that first listen: coming home from a night out in late spring 2011 to find that the new Bon Iver album had leaked. Forgetting any thought of sleep as I settled into a comfortable chair with my laptop and a pair of headphones. Hearing those first murmurs of “Perth” wash over me as the warm June rain lashed against my bedroom window. For the rest of that season, Bon Iver, Bon Iver was one of my go-to albums for after the sun went down. It didn’t feel quite right in the daytime, when the heat was blazing at full strength. But just as For Emma, Forever Ago had come alive for me on cold, pre-Christmas drives through my frozen hometown, this record sounded immaculate cruising those same roads in the hot, humid darkness of a northern Michigan July. “Beth/Rest” was particularly otherworldly, an ‘80s teen movie jam positioned anomalously but perfectly in the closing slot. In the years since, I’ve found that many fans have very different snapshots and memories of the songs. Some associate “Holocene” and its delicate magnificence as much with winter and Christmas as I did Emma. Others pull this album out as the autumn leaves begin to change color. But therein might lie the true, great beauty of this record: just like the lovely and serene cover art, the songs are impressionistic, open to many interpretations and capable of reflecting the splendor of the natural, unhurried world no matter the month or weather or temperature. Most of the time, the concepts of what constitutes a “summer album” or a “winter album” are pre-set and universal. One of Justin Vernon’s most baffling talents might be his ability to make albums that can be both, neither, and so much more.

47. Matt Nathanson - Modern Love

Modern Love is Matt Nathanson’s breeziest, poppiest record. The predecessor, 2007’s Some Mad Hope, was heavy and packed with angst. It was every relationship you’d ever had that ended up on the rocks, whether dashed to pieces or just damaged and hanging on for dear life. Modern Love could hardly be more different. It’s effortless and weightless, like a summer vacation when your biggest worry is whether you’ll get sand stuck between the seats of your parents’ car while you’re trying to load seven friends into the five seats for drives to and from the beach. It’s nervous glances and radiant smiles and unreserved giggles shared with the girl or boy you’ve been crushing on for weeks. It’s a first kiss, set against the backdrop of crashing waves and a magenta setting sun. Something about this record can still bring back extremely tactile moments from those carefree summers, before jobs and bills and all the other trappings of adulthood got in the way. Delirious love songs like “Faster” give way to sweeping romantic epics like “Room at the End of the World” or “Run,” which themselves dissolve into jagged rock show sing-alongs like “Mercy” and “Queen of (K)nots.” The album’s conclusion, the resplendently melodic one-two punch of “Drop to Hold You” and “Bottom of the Sea,” carries the contentment of a summer vacation well spent, and of the yearning to stay in the protective bubble of youthful freedom for a little longer. Nathanson may have made at least one better record, but he never made one that was more innately, immediately listenable.

48. Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth

In no world would I ever have predicted this album landing an Album of the Year nod at the Grammys. Sturgill Simpson’s brand of psychedelic, throwback country isn’t exactly the stuff of crossover gold, and this record—a bombastic, vulnerable, brass-infused celebration of newfound fatherhood—seemed well out of step with the music the Grammy committee was going for circa 2016. Somehow, though, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth managed to worm its way into the Album of the Year field, alongside superstars like Drake, Beyonce, and Justin Bieber. Sturgill didn’t win; the prize ultimately went to Adele, for 25, the fastest-selling album in history. But Sailor’s Guide was the artistic triumph of the night and the year in general: a meticulously structured and deeply-felt album about the fears you feel when you bring someone into a world that may or may not be fit for them to inhabit. The fears of this album are both small (think “Will I see my kid enough between stints out on the road?”) and large (“Will political division and war steal my kid’s chance at innocence?”), paving the way for a piece of work that feels at once innately personal and startlingly universal.

49. Coldplay - Ghost Stories

“Tell me you love me, if you don’t then lie.” Chris Martin sings those words on “True Love,” and to me, they’re among the most powerfully and simplistically sad song lyrics of the last 10 years. Sometimes, relationships just die. Love runs out of gas somewhere and breaks down on the side of the road. But wouldn’t it be nice to make believe that it hadn’t? To keep acting like everything was fine? Ghost Stories is a fascinating album because it exists in that moment between wanting to pretend a broken relationship can be fixed and resigning yourself to the fact that it can’t. The way I hear it, the album plays out over the course of one long, sleepless night—a night spent reckoning with all the denial and regret and fear and doubt and heartbreak and loneliness that comes with cutting your losses and taking an L on a relationship that has spanned years. It’s not a mistake that the album’s mid-way point is called “Midnight,” a desolate expanse of a song that sounds like a robot lost out in the woods on a moonless, starless winter night. Eventually, we find our way to something close to euphoria—on “Sky Full of Stars,” about how it’s better to have lived a beautiful love story and had it end than to have never lived that experience at all. And “O,” the album’s luminescent closing track, is about the ultimate moment of letting go, set to the backdrop of birds fluttering through the sky at dawn. Ghost Stories is the saddest album Coldplay ever made, and arguably the least celebrated. It’s spectral and haunting and unflinching, a portrait of those terrible nights when sleep won’t come and you’re left alone with your thoughts and your own nagging loneliness. For a band that always built their appeal on big, cathartic anthems that left room for everyone else’s sadness, it was maybe uncomfortable for people to hear Coldplay sound so sad themselves. But the beauty of Ghost Stories is in that tension—between the identity of the band that made it and the music inside. It was one of the least expected, least marketable, least mainstream major pop albums of the decade—and one of the best.

50. The Maine - Lovely Little Lonely

How did we get here? The first time I heard The Maine was at a show opening up for Boys Like Girls in 2009. They were touring in support of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, a catchy but largely unremarkable (and largely immature) entry in the late-2000s neon pop-punk movement. But The Maine went on to have a wildly interesting decade. Slowly, they evolved from being a pop-punk band singing teen pop songs into this decade’s answer to Third Eye Blind. That evolution reached its apex here, with Lovely Little Lonely. Pitched somewhere between 90s pop-rock and the electronic-leaning stadium flourishes of The 1975, this album soars like an arena-rock classic—even if The Maine are unlikely ever to reach that stature. My favorite song on it was always “The Sound of Reverie,” which distills the album’s overall thesis statement—about nostalgia, faded youth, and aging out of your glory days—into one of the decade’s most singularly grand slices of pop perfection. “Let’s take our time/While it’s still ours to take/’Cause some things hardly change/But nothing ever stays the same,” sings frontman John O’Callaghan at the outset of the track. It’s a song about the rapid pace of time, and the whiplash changes of life, and the ways friendships and eras of our lives form and fade in the blink of an eye. “Don’t blink because you will/And when you open up your eyes again/You may not recognize a friend,” goes the pre-chorus. And then we dive into the depths: “It may be bittersweet/’Cause we’re no longer 17/But we’re still young so/Dance with me in naivete/And follow endlessly/The sound of reverie.” That song, to me, has always been the album in miniature. It’s about being an adult—whatever that means—but still getting lost in nostalgia for a simpler, younger time. It’s about remembering 17, or 23, or a time in your life when you thought you were invincible but you weren’t. It’s about reaching for connection with another person after youth is gone and connections—to friends, or to romantic prospects, or both—aren’t as easy to come by as they used to be. And it’s about weathering those moments of lovely little loneliness, yearning for the one person who might help you make sense of everything; it’s reaching out in the backseat of a taxi for someone who might be able to make the sadness a little less everlasting. For twentysomethings stranded on the brink between youth and adulthood and wondering if they’d ever feel truly comfortable in their own skin, this album and its vivid snapshots of life in a coming-of-age transition was the perfect tonic. It was there to make us feel a little less lonely.

51. Japandroids - Celebration Rock

There is no more appropriately titled album from the past 10 years than Celebration Rock. Japandroids knew exactly what they were doing with this record, from the name to the songs to the fireworks that herald both the beginning and ending of the disc. Crafted in the spirit of Born to Run—another eight-song LP that captures the restlessness and exhilaration of young adult life—Celebration Rock was arguably the greatest rock LP in a decade where rock music largely receded into the background. If you were in college around the time this album came out, I hope you didn’t miss an opportunity to play the songs at a loud, drunken party with your friends. Japandroids would settle down and start exploring love, marriage, and domesticity on the follow-up, 2017’s Near to the Wild Heart of Life. But here, they were thoroughly focused on bottles of booze, raucous nights, and all the intensity and possibility of that time in your life when responsibility still seems like it’s another few exits down fire’s highway. I have two unforgettable memories of this record, both of which occurred at moments where it felt like an era of my life was ending. The first was “Continuous Thunder,” playing as I drove home from my last night at a summer job that had meant the world to me. The second was “The House That Heaven Built,” which I made sure to blast on the stereo late at night during the last party my roommates and I ever threw at our apartment. So much of this record is an epic riot, a constant blitzkrieg of sound. But both those songs felt so poignant in those moments, when I was bidding farewell to some of the last signifiers of my youth: summer jobs; summer vacations; college parties; college roommates; shots of vodka with people I was about to say goodbye to, maybe forever. Celebration Rock would be a near-perfect rock album under any circumstances. But I’ll always love it for how it captures, for me, both the spirit of a celebratory party and the melancholy of recognizing that it’s time for the party to end.

52. Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material

At this point, Pageant Material typically has the unlucky honor of being considered the weakest Kacey Musgraves album. Neither as game-changing as Same Trailer, Different Park nor as unanimously beloved in a crossover fashion as Golden Hour, Musgraves’ 2015 sophomore disc is the odd album out in a young but already storied discography. But where Pageant Material maybe feels less cohesive than the albums that bookend it, it’s also such a sterling collection of songs that it’s hard to believe anyone would want to criticize it. “Dime Store Cowgirl” is Kacey’s entire ethos wrapped up in a perfect, catchy pop-country hook. “Biscuits” is her wittiest single. “Late to the Party” is a swoon-worthy love song that paved the way for Golden Hour. “Somebody to Love” and “Miserable” are arguably the two prettiest songs anyone wrote this decade, in any genre, and they just happened to be paired as a one-two punch. “Good Ol’ Boys Club” is a scathing indictment of Nashville’s male-centric power imbalance, written a few years before everyone started talking about it. “Fine” is a classic country weeper that leads into a bonus track with none other than Willie Nelson. That’s half the album, and that’s without even touching upon huge gems like “High Time” or “Die Fun.” It’s true that Pageant Materials feels more like a collection of songs than a complete statement—something that hurts it in comparison to Golden Hour. But in a genre that values—or that at least used to value—songs and songwriting above all else, it’s also a sharp display of everything that Kacey Musgraves is capable of. In terms of pure songwriting craft, it’s probably her best album.

53. Ashley Monroe - The Blade

“You caught it by the handle/I caught it by the blade.” That’s the punchline to the title track of Ashley Monroe’s greatest album, a song about letting your guard down, giving your heart to another person, and ending up bruised and bloody at the end of it all. For every mutual parting of the ways, there’s a breakup where one person is more invested—or more in love—than the other person. When the relationship ends, that person gets caught in the blast radius. But as Monroe sings in the song’s bursting, heart-aching chorus, “That’s the risk you run when you love, when you love/And you give it all you’ve got to give.” It’s one of the greatest country songs of the decade, from an LP that ranks up among the finest full-length works the genre had to offer. Ashley Monroe never got enough attention, whether as a solo artist, as a collaborator, or as a member of the country music supergroup Pistol Annies. But here, with the guiding hand of producer Vince Gill, she made one of the lushest and most gorgeous albums of the 2010s. The upbeat anthems feel like pop-country gold (see opener “On to Something Good”), while the ballads capture wistful sadness in the way that only classic-leaning country music can (the penultimate gut-puncher that is “Mayflowers”). That Monroe can span both sides of the country music divide so effectively is proof positive of her immense talent and her near-limitless potential.

54. The Menzingers - Hello Exile

Getting old sucks. Losing touch with old friends sucks. Having to attend a funeral, any funeral, but especially one for a buddy who was your age, sucks. Realizing that your days of youthful abandon are behind you sucks. Hello Exile is an album about all the things that suck most about being a so-called “grown up.” Where 2017’s After the Party found some solace in the maturity that comes with moving out of your 20s toward middle age, Hello Exile dwells on the darker side of it all. “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” is about no longer being able to live in blissful ignorance of what the political and societal state of the nation means for the future. “Anna” is about youthful flings and epic romances that get tempered by jobs and other adulthood responsibilities. “I Can’t Stop Drinking” is about how a riotous drunk night in college is a good story while a riotous drunk night in your 30s or 40s is a sign you might have a problem. “Farewell Youth” is about putting a good friend in the ground, and your youth with them. For anyone who was struggling to come to terms with adulthood in 2019—and that might be everyone from my generation…it’s certainly me—Hello Exile spoke that same comforting message that so much great music from over the years has shouted out loudly: you are not alone.

55.  Jimmy Eat World - Damage

Jimmy Eat World have a knack for releasing albums at crucial moments in my life. Futures came out when I was just starting to fall in love with music. Chase This Light dropped as I was starting to feel that restless shift from childhood to adulthood. Invented released as I was navigating a stable, loving relationship—my first. Even amidst this legacy, Damage was a surprise. This album wasn’t scheduled for release until June 2013, but a mix of good luck and my credentials as an staff member meant I got it almost two months early. The email bearing the mp3s arrived in my inbox on the eve of my last-ever day of college classes. Quickly, Damage came to represent those last pages of a crucial life chapter. It took on the color of my college campus in the glow of spring—something I never appreciated appropriately until it was almost gone. More importantly, the words of these songs struck a chord with what I was feeling at the time. Nostalgia. Regret. Gratefulness for opportunities past. The sting of relationships that were about to come to a close. Narratively, Damage was an “adult breakup album,” a record crafted in concept to bid a mature, noble farewell to something that was beautiful but that, functionally, didn’t work. The songs were sturdy, but the concept wasn’t grandiose enough to hold the attention of many Jimmy Eat World fans—especially those that longed for the emotional highs and lows of Clarity and Bleed American. For me, though, the text of Damage mattered immeasurably less than the context in which it entered my life. If I’d heard it for the first time a couple months later, it might have passed me by, or registered as the distinctly “minor” JEW album that many fans view it to be. Instead, it soundtracked the days around my graduation, my last nights at the bar with my roommates, and my deep introspection about where I was in life and where I might be going. The day after I graduated, I packed up my room and drove away. Damage was the first album I played in the car as I hit the road, and the lyrics crushed me. “You were good, you were good, then you were gone,” Jim Adkins sang on the final track. The words were simple, and the song was raw and sparse, lacking the scope or ambition that had made past Jimmy Eat World albums feel larger than life. But if I could go back and relive my last moments of college 1,000 times, I would never, ever change the soundtrack. Jimmy Eat World had been with me through so much—through adolescence and young adulthood and love and doubt and heartbreak. It was nothing less than fate that put them there beside me at that moment, for one last hurrah before I charged into the breach to face the unknown.

56. Brian Fallon - Sleepwalkers 

Brian Fallon was arguably the artist of the decade, and that’s even considering the fact that his magnum opus came out a year and four months before this decade even started. For those who are counting, I have six Fallon records on this list: three with Gaslight Anthem, one with The Horrible Crowes, and two solo LPs. Of all those, Sleepwalkers is probably the most personal and the most honest. Fallon was ready to crash his car into the sea at the end of 2014’s Get Hurt. His first solo album, 2016’s Painkillers, was a tentative play at moving on after a divorce and after his band went on indefinite hiatus. Sleepwalkers is the first record since 2012’s Handwritten where he sounds as hungry and vital as he did in those early days. Back then, though, he had something to prove: for awhile he wanted to be Bruce Springsteen, and then he just decided he’d settle for being the biggest rock star of the 2010s. On Sleepwalkers, he doesn’t have anything to prove anymore, which means he can both have a ton of fun (the classic soul/R&B flourishes of songs like “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven” or the title track) and be incredibly earnest (the closing suite of “Neptune,” “Watson,” and “See You on the Other Side,” all about finding love again after divorce) without worrying what a single clueless Pitchfork writer might think. To hear him howl at the moon again, like he believes in rock ‘n’ roll anew—see the aching, cathartic “Etta James”—was as thrilling as any moment on record this decade. With or without Gaslight, Sleepwalkers made me excited to be a Brian Fallon fan again.

57. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness - Zombies on Broadway

Andrew McMahon scored the biggest hit of his career with “Cecilia and the Satellite,” the good-not-great lead single from his first album under the In the Wilderness moniker. It was a poppy song, driven by a propulsive woah-oh chorus that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Lumineers single. If it convinced McMahon of anything, it was that he could have a career as a pop hitmaker. Said another way, if “Cecilia” could hit the Hot 100, why couldn’t he do it again? Zombies on Broadway is the kind of album that results when an artist asks that kind of question. It is a big, zippy, explosive collection of arena pop songs dominated by synths and massive choruses that are easy to sing along to and even easier to get stuck in your head. In a different era, the album might have scanned as a sellout attempt. In the age of the algorithmic pop star and the importance of Spotify streams, though, it was a smart strategic play from a songwriter who always had better pop chops than 90 percent of the artists on mainstream radio. And frankly, if pop music were any sort of meritocracy at all, these songs would have been hits. “Fire Escape,” “So Close,” “Don’t Speak for Me,” and “Dead Man’s Dollar” are all deliriously catchy pop gems that pair Andrew’s commanding, charismatic vocal style with something a little more palatable to pop listeners. Fortunately, though, McMahon hedges his bets a little bit, tossing in songs that are just as thoughtful and story-driven as the bulk of his very autobiographical catalog. “Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me” is the bridge between the whirlwind California summer of Everything in Transit and this album’s New York setting. “Walking in My Sleep” captures the surreal feeling of being away from home for a very long stretch of time (on tour, in Andrew’s case) and wondering if you even still have anything to go back to. And “The Birthday Song” is arguably his most aching composition ever, a song that strikes at the dichotomy between the thrill of his job and the pain of being away from his family for such long periods of time. It’s maybe the first time in his career where you can hear McMahon thinking about closing up his piano and calling it a day. Because who wants to be away from their wife and their kids for weeks at a time, missing milestones in pursuit of the next life-affirming moment onstage? The album seems to answer that question, in the form of songs that capture the emotional punch and the skyscraping beauty that music can convey. Sometimes, when you love something, you can’t help but sacrifice for it—even if the things you’re sacrificing are the people who mean the world to you.

58. The Damnwells - No One Listens to the Band Anymore

Some bands just never get enough credit. The Damnwells were that kind of band from the jump, all the way up to their final release in 2015. On No One Listens to the Band Anymore, they poked fun at that notion. By 2011, no one really listened to any band anymore, let alone an under-the-radar roots rock outfit from Brooklyn. By that particular point in time, the indie rock buzz of the 2000s was fading away, soon to be overwhelmed by the heavily poptimist age we find ourselves in now. But The Damnwells were a breath of fresh air: a band that sounded both brand new and like something that would have been on the radio during the heyday of 1990s radio rock. When I first heard this album in the spring of 2011, it bowled me over. I’d liked One Last Century, the previous album that The Damnwells had offered up as a free download to anyone who cared to listen. But I immediately loved No One Listens to the Band. It had this crisp, unhurried vibe to it—like a humid spring night, just on the brink of summertime. As a night drive album, it was bulletproof, making the miles between my girlfriend’s house and my own sound as wistful and reflective as they felt at the time. Frontman Alex Dezen had a knack for writing songs that were catchy and immediate, but that also held a little more beneath the surface than you might have expected at first glance. His songs seemed fraught with deep questions—on relationships that failed, and existential musings, and summer nights he can’t get back. They were twisted knots of metaphor and imagery, Rorschach tests that let you see or hear what you wanted in the stories and words. All these years later, it’s still an album I don’t understand fully. Was it a breakup album? A record about frustration with the music industry? Dezen’s way of looking back at his past life? The truth is, No One Listens to the Band Anymore is all of these things—a rock record with endless layers and deep nuances, released at a time when that kind of rock album was about to hit the endangered species list.

59. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Small town suburban life is often painted as grayscale and mundane. On their third—and best—album, Arcade Fire make it sound like a titanic struggle for the soul. The album packs epic themes into a decidedly ordinary package: a package built of cookie-cutter houses and labyrinthine subdivision streets, of colorless cul-de-sacs and expansive vistas with no skyscrapers or tall buildings to break the line on the horizon. It would be easy for an album that builds this world to sound dull and nondescript, but The Suburbs isn’t that. It’s an album that hints at both the beauty and the ugliness that is hiding in these corners of the world. The beauty is often in the innocence: of kids and teenagers wasting hours wandering their neighborhoods, or getting up to hijinks with friends, or falling in love with girls from school. The ugliness is found elsewhere: in the ignorance of narrow-minded people; in the hopelessness of dead-end jobs; in the hideous eyesores of dying shopping malls; and in the way that friends grow apart as they grow older, until they end up pitted against each other on different sides of some “suburban war.” Growing up in a suburban area or a small town, you often don’t register these things until later: until you can reflect and see the splendor in the time of your life when you had no responsibility, or until you gain a broader worldview and start seeing the seedy underbelly of the place you used to call home. The Suburbs is expansive and fully-realized in exploring these concepts, both with the wide-eyed charm of youth and the hardened reflection of adulthood. It’s an album that felt prescient in 2010, in the midst of the Great Recession, and one that maybe only feels more relevant now, in Trump’s America. It’s a shame that, as of yet, Arcade Fire have not made anything worthwhile since.

60. Mandolin Orange - Such Jubilee

The album cover for Such Jubilee is my favorite artwork from any record this decade. It’s a breathtaking image that conveys so much of what the music on this album sounds like, and so much of what it is about. The image depicts a small house on an otherwise deserted stretch of land, set against a backdrop of dark, starry sky. The nighttime dwarfs the house just as the cosmos dwarf the rest of us, challenged only by a plume of smoke issuing from the chimney. There is a glow of light along the horizon, from a sun recently set but not ready to relax its grip on the world. The album sets a challenge for itself by having such a beautiful, evocative image as its face—an image that calls to mind the comforts of home, the warmth of a fire in the grate, the power of feeling minuscule under a sky full of stars, and the majestic quiet of the night. But if there was ever an album that sounded like its cover, Such Jubilee is it. It’s an album about coming home from touring and letting yourself fall back into the embrace of home and normalcy and family and stability anew. “Such Jubilee is a record about home, both the place and the idea,” the band wrote of the album. “Some days it’s a safe, warm, loving refuge from the world outside. Other days it's cold and empty and too quiet. Either way, it's always waiting for you at the end of the road.” These songs convey that identity crisis beautifully, painting home through the exhilaration of a long-awaited return (“Old Ties & Companions”), as an all-too-silent, haunted companion in times of tragedy (“Blue Ruin”), and as a place you ache for so deeply when, exhausted, you resign to laying your head on a pillow somewhere else (“Of Which There Is No Like”). A lot of artists—especially in the country sphere—wrote songs about home or hometowns this decade. No record captures the beguiling complexity of “home” and what that word means as much as this one.

61. Travis Meadows - First Cigarette

Some albums feel like background music. Especially in modern country music, there are so many artists that specialize in making little more than window dressing. Their songs are intended to be something you listen to while doing something else: drinking at a bar, hanging out with friends, hosting a barbeque. Travis Meadows’ First Cigarette is the opposite. It feels more like a manifesto than an album: a collection of important thoughts, stories, and lessons passed down to you by someone who paid dearly to learn them. Meadows has lived a very hard life, full of heartbreaks and obstacles that would shatter a weaker person. His family abandoned him; he lost his leg to cancer; he lost years of his life in a haze of alcoholism and addiction. If the mantra “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is true, though, then First Cigarette is the evidence. “I hope you get your heart broke at least once before you fall in love,” he sings on “Pontiac.” “I hope you wind up flat broke before you have enough/Hold on to your innocence, through the almost and the could-have-beens/Put an anchor in something that’ll bring you back/I hope you keep the Pontiac.” Who could sing those words without knowing what it’s like to be low—and knowing how important those lessons are to help you find your way back? The album is full of moments like that, moments that take you both to the depths of failure and the resounding heights of hope. For every “Sideways,” a haunting illustration of addiction’s gravitational pull, there’s a “Better Boat,” about finding different ways to cope with the darkness. For every “McDowell Road,” a memory-lane driving song full of ghosts and missed opportunities, there’s a “Pray for Jungleland,” a radiant hymn to the powers of nostalgia, summer, beautiful girls, and Springsteen on the radio. The record, along with Isbell’s Southeastern and Ruston Kelly’s Dying Star, is part of a great trilogy of albums from this decade that depict what it means to live through addiction and rise from the ashes: bruised, battered, and full of regrets, but ready to live a different kind of life. It is a genuine masterpiece about the triumph of the human spirit.

62. Taylor Swift - Speak Now

I never gave female artists enough attention in the 2000s, especially pop singers. I was predisposed to hate the radio, and my focus on artists and bands was narrow enough that I just never broadened my horizons away from artists that looked like me, sounded like me, and probably had perspectives similar to mine. Taylor Swift was the first artist to break that cycle for me, in part because it was hard not to get caught up in the release cycle for Speak Now. Swift was too big, too notable, too inescapable. More than that, though, as I started delving into this record, it felt like the songs were written for me specifically. The picture I had of Swift in my head was as a luminescent pop-country princess, someone capable of writing incredible hooks but also someone whose fairytale visions in songs like “Love Story” or “You Belong with Me” didn’t have much to do with my life. But then I heard “Mine,” a song about a relationship where things aren’t storybook perfect. In the very early days of my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife), that song—and much of the rest of Speak Now—resonated with me. “You are the best thing that’s ever been mine,” Taylor sang in this album’s opener, and as a 19-year-old kid in love and in his first real, serious relationship, those words felt like a rallying cry. Swift’s love songs seemed to capture the technicolor rush of butterflies and feelings I was experiencing at the time, and they still do all these years later. And on the rough nights, when the strain of a long-distance relationship started to get to me, or when my girlfriend and I left things on an unhappy note, I would play “Last Kiss” in the car over and over again, just to revel in the sadness and to remind myself that fighting for us was the right thing. Speak Now doesn’t mean as much to 29-year-old me as it did to 19-year-old me, and Taylor has gone on to make better (and worse) records. Still, it’s maybe the album that most clearly encapsulates, to me, what it feels like to be young, in love, and sure of nothing else in the world but your feelings for that other person. 

63. Bruce Springsteen - Western Stars 

Springsteen spent the latter half of the 2010s in reflective mode. He played The River in full over and over again on an E Street tour that was supposed to last a month or two and ended up lasting a year. He published an autobiography. He reckoned with his legacy and his mortality in an acclaimed Broadway show. In the midst of this process, Western Stars was delayed repeatedly. For years, it was pitched only as a solo album that would be a bit of a departure from his past work. I was convinced, for several of those years, that the album would never actually see the light of day. When it did, it was with little fanfare: no tour, not much press, and a positive but relatively quiet reception. What’s here, though, is a new Springsteen classic that is as singular as anything in his career. It’s a record of sweeping, old fashioned country music—full of strings and songs that capture the wide-open, panoramic expanses of the American west. Sonically, it’s one of the most beautiful albums Springsteen has ever made, from the lush and melodic numbers like “Sundown” and “There Goes My Miracle” to sparse acoustic beauties like “Chasin’ Wild Horses” and “Hello Sunshine.” But the best thing about Western Stars is how the arrangements leave plenty of room for Bruce’s most vivid storytelling in years. The title track, about a washed-up actor coasting on former glories, works as both an empathetic treatise on aging and a meta commentary on Springsteen’s career. And “Moonlight Motel,” the haunting closing track, is maybe the best song Bruce has penned since the ‘80s, a writerly masterwork that uses the image of a crumbling motel to explore the slow decay of time and the fleeting nature of young love. We tend to value artists like Springsteen mostly for their legacies and past work—hence the way The Boss has spent most of this decade looking back rather than looking forward. Western Stars is proof that, at the top of their game, the old heroes are still as good as anyone who’s come along since.
64. Matt Nathanson - Sings His Sad Heart

A lot about Sings His Sad Heart is a joke. The title, for instance, is Matt Nathanson actively making fun of himself and his tendency to write songs about heartbreak and regret. On a recent tour, Nathanson brought along a spinning wheel as a way of picking random songs or song categories for his setlist. When explaining the categories, he came upon one called “Happy Songs.” “I’ve got about three of those,” he remarked. That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. While Nathanson is by all accounts a happy person, with a strong marriage and a good relationship with his daughter, his nostalgic sensibilities and love for sad pop songs make him a conduit for art about breakups, unrequited love, and missed opportunities. He doesn’t understand it himself—last year, in a candid interview, he told me that he wanted this album to be a big, uplifting political rallying cry, only for broken-relationship hymns like “Different Beds” and “Way Way Back” to swim to the surface. “It’s gotta be some sort of ‘parents fucking me up thing,’” he told me. He was partially kidding, but that’s the thing about Nathanson’s records—Sings His Sad Heart particularly: they are a sort of therapy, digging up the things from the past that you haven’t quite gotten over yet and turning them into wildly catchy pop confections. Through a mix of unguarded honesty and wry humor, Nathanson takes us back to the way things used to be, giving us space to reckon with the question of why nostalgia and the past have so much of a pull for so many of us.

65. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Kanye West saw his stock plummet drastically in the 2010s, due to a mixture of bad political takes and bad albums. At the start of the decade, though, he was firmly at his career zenith. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy probably topped just about every album of the year list that came out at the end of 2010, and it wasn’t difficult to see why. Even for me, someone who had never found much appeal in hip-hop, this album was mind-blowing. I loved how melodic it was: how Kanye wove in guitar solos and samples and guest features from the likes of Rihanna and Elton John and John Legend and Bon Iver to create something as explosively hooky as it was beat-driven. I still have very little knowledge or understanding of the genre this album comes from, but something about Fantasy just feels universal. I remember playing it over and over again in my dorm room throughout the winter of my sophomore year of college, trying to figure out why this album connected with me when I’d never connected with rap music before. I kept listening because I was confused and fascinated, but also because I was remarkably entertained. I couldn’t get enough of the dizzying melodic explosions of the first five tracks, or of the way the soul-inflected bombast of “Devil in a New Dress” dissolved into the animatronic nightmare of “Runaway.” I certainly couldn’t get enough of the sky-high climactic drive of “Lost in the World.” The rest of the world couldn’t get enough either, and for the best part of the past 10 years, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remained the de-facto pick for “album of the decade.” It seems unlikely to hold that title now, given everything that has happened to brand Kanye West as problematic. But it’s nice to put this album on and rewind the clock, back to when these songs were new and we hadn’t started judging our celebrities to the impossible standards we do now. Because regardless of politics and bad tweets and questionable opinions, there is no album from the past decade that is grander, more daring, more audacious, or altogether greater.
66. Jimmy Eat World - Invented

Invented marked the last time I ever drove to the store with the sole intention of buying a CD. By the time the album actually came out, I’d already memorized every line, every guitar riff, and every instrumental flourish. When a shoddy mp3 rip hit the internet, I downloaded Invented from my dorm room—as an RA, no less—and proceeded to play it exhaustively. The fall of 2010, in retrospect, absolutely sounds like this record: walks to class; hours spent chilling in my dorm room; drives around campus; road trips across the state to visit my girlfriend. It was, in many ways, what Futures became for me in the fall of 2004, or what Chase This Light was in the autumn of 2007: a snapshot of my life captured in Jimmy Eat World’s yearning, sweeping rock ‘n’ roll. I grabbed the CD version because it was a deluxe edition, and it did not leave my car’s stereo for the remainder of my sophomore year of college. It was the perfect album for that year: lovelorn and restless and bombastic and full of moments as big as the life milestones I was living. For awhile, I even had it in my mind that Invented was Jimmy Eat World’s best album, a record that had somehow lived up to the impossible task of bettering Futures. Looking back, Invented is maybe my least favorite Jimmy Eat World album, at least post-Clarity. It feels less of a particular vision than most of the band’s albums, and 2-3 of the songs just miss the mark. But Invented was maybe the most important album in the world to me during what might have been my most tumultuous year—a year packed with firsts, with emotional highs and lows, and with moments of self-discovery so potent that they threatened to knock my entire life path into the next county. When I listen to Invented now, I hear every piece of that year: “Evidence” and “Coffee & Cigarettes” bring back the road trips; “Littlething” and “Cut” bring back the lonely nights; the rafter-shaking climactic section of the title track brings back all the questions I had about my own identity. By the time “Mixtape” spins around at the end of the reel, it still feels like the words were meant for me: “Maybe we could put your tape back on/Rewind before the moment we went wrong.” This album was a mixtape and a snapshot of a very particular period in my life, and while it will never again mean as much to me as it did then, I’m so thankful I had Jimmy Eat World there, again, to guide me along a perilous path.

67. Charlie Worsham - Rubberband

On Rubberband, Charlie Worsham’s songs feel as warm as a summer night. Pitched somewhere between Dierks Bentley and Vince Gill, Worsham showed himself here to be a sharp talent as a writer, a guitar player, and a vocalist. The top half is stacked with should-have-been hits: the optimistic “Could It Be,” about two people finally colliding after months of dancing around their feelings for one another; the rollicking “Want Me Too,” an infectious take on the unrequited love song; “Young to See,” about the way your perspective on the world shifts as you grow older; and “Trouble Is,” a sexy, heart-thumping jam about trying (and failing) to hide your feelings and desire for the person you’ve fallen in love with. These songs are catchy and smart, but they don’t drown in poppy production or trip over their own cleverness in the way a lot of mid-2010s pop-country did. Instead, Worsham imbues them with humor, tenderness, and a clear-eyed understanding of who he is and the tales he wants to tell. Even despite the rousing successes of these first four tracks, though, Rubberband is most successful in its back half, where Worsham delivers a series of back-porch-at-dusk country songs so gorgeous that they should all become songbook classics. There’s “How I Learned to Pray,” which transcends its potentially preachy title for a wise story about growing up reckless and finding maturity. There’s “Mississippi in July,” a gutting ballad about high school sweethearts who ultimately spin off in different orbits—and marry different people. And there’s “Love Don’t Die Easy,” about the bravery, foolishness, resilience, and longevity that makes true love so special. The 2010s were a largely cynical time—a time where snark and “hot takes” and momentary trends overwhelmed everything from political discourse to music. What makes Rubberband so wonderful is how completely devoid of cynicism it is. Worsham is willing to write songs that are poignant, earnest, and heart-on-the-sleeve honest. Based on how Charlie Worsham has been ignored by country radio, he may not have been made for these times—a fact that makes us even luckier to have him here. 

68. Steve Moakler - Steel Town

Small towns; beaches; sunsets; Coppertone sunscreen; Patron vodka; lifeguard stands; hard work; hard play; 95-degree temperatures; sunburns; stolen kisses; beautiful girls; beautiful eyes; flip-flops; sand everywhere; summer flings; another drink; pints of golden-hued beer; hair bleached blonde by the sun; falling in love; getting your heart broken; June; July; August; fighting off September; losing the fight against September; boat rides; fast cars; road trips; vacation days; postcards from resort towns; countdowns to Friday at 5; crashing waves; swimming; surfing; rides on the backstreets; makeout sessions in the backseat; days flying by like lightning; memories burned in your mind; a time of your life that simultaneously seemed to last forever and disappear in the blink of an eye. These are the ingredients of Steel Town, an album that does as good of a job at encapsulating the wonderment of summertime as any album from the past 10 years. Whether he’s singing a love song, pining after a girl who’s gone, or marveling at the passage of time, Steve Moakler does it all with the wisp of a passing summer afternoon there in the sound of his voice. Steel Town was sneakily one of my most played albums of the decade, and its ability to capture that very specific summer vibe explains why.

69. Brandon Flowers - The Desired Effect

On his first solo album, 2010’s Flamingo, Brandon Flowers sounded like he was trying to make a Killers album without The Killers. Five years later, when he made The Desired Effect, that wasn’t the case at all. Easily the wildest and most audacious album that Flowers ever made, Effect is the kind of pop album where the rulebook clearly got tossed out the window during one of the very first recording sessions. Credit producer Ariel Rechtshaid—known for working with pop chameleons like Vampire Weekend and Haim—for pushing Flowers out of his comfort zone. We do get a few songs that sound like Killers tracks: namely the rain-soaked “Between Me and You,” a Peter Gabriel-esque ballad that would have sounded firmly at home in the middle of Battle Born. Most of the time, though, The Desired Effect sounds like a bold, confident debut album from an artist who was born to be a solo act. “Dreams Come True” is epic Springsteen-style pomp; “Can’t Deny My Love” is a zippy banger with the kind of cavernous hook that most modern pop artists couldn’t even begin to fathom; “I Can Change” is a chilly, hip-hop informed gem; “Lonely Town” is straight John Hughes 80s utopia; “Diggin’ up the Heart” is wild outlaw country by way of The Village People; and “The Way Its Always Been” is a cross between the stadium sweep of U2 and the psychedelic experimentation of late-period Beatles. Every song is its own distinct work of art, but they somehow coalesce into something greater: a widescreen, big-hearted pop album that feels even more notable in an era when most pop music was cynical and insular. The biggest flaw is that Flowers left the best song—the laser-blast would-be jock jam that is the title track—on the cutting room floor.

70. Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto

Not enough rock bands reached for the rafters this decade. So, when Coldplay did it on Mylo Xyloto, in the corniest, least apologetic way ever, it was genuinely epic. Coldplay had gone big before this. Technically, Coldplay had always gone big—at least ever since they’d started scaling for the stars on A Rush of Blood to the Head. But X&Y and especially Viva La Vida had been arty reaches, flecking the band’s core piano-rock sound with world-music influences and inspiration spanning from country music to krautrock. Mylo Xyloto was the first Coldplay record to really recognize the band’s status as a pop act, and it was all the stronger for it. There are still art-rock elements to this record: interludes are everywhere, and the entire album is supposedly a rock opera about a soldier and an activist falling in love in the midst of an Orwellian dictatorship. (I have never heard any traces of this story.) But Mylo Xyloto works because all its big ideas are packed into punchy pop songs. “Hurts Like Heaven”; “Paradise”; “Charlie Brown”; “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”; “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart.” These are all unabashedly catchy, unabashedly huge songs that sound almost inappropriate played in an environment that isn’t a stadium. Even ballads like “Us Against the World” and “Up in Flames” sound like they were meant to echo through cavernous spaces. The entire thing is as colorful and kaleidoscopic as a box of Crayola crayons, taken to the next level by gargantuan production from Markus Dravs. It’s the greatest stadium rock album of the decade.

71. The National - High Violet

“I never thought about love when I thought about home,” Matt Berninger sings in the bursting, cathartic chorus of “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” You could interpret that line in multiple ways, but I always heard it as a realization, later in life, that you took home for granted. When I first heard this song, late in my freshman year of college, when I’d spent more time away from home than at any other point in my life, that line hit me like a knife to the heart. In the song, it’s easy to take the lyric at face value: as Berninger’s proclamation that he doesn’t think much of his hometown in Ohio. But the mood of the song—warm, enveloping, wine-buzzed, and lit like a noir photograph—says something else. Home lives in your blood, and when you leave it, it comes back to you at unexpected moments, accompanied by unanticipated pangs of longing. Those complex emotions form the backbone of High Violet, a dark and often gloomy album about the dissatisfaction of early adulthood. The tracks are littered with anxiety over meeting and interacting with new people, apprehension over new fatherhood, feverish insomnia that only alcohol can fix, and grasps at holding onto a romantic relationship that is slowly but steadily falling apart. When the world gets that dark, it’s hard not to look back fondly at youth and your hometown, and to feel like maybe you didn’t cherish the ease of all that innocence while you still could. The dichotomy between those two extremes—the rose-colored view of the past and the complex, fractured world of the present—renders High Violet a gripping and complicated album that I have only truly come to understand with time.

72. Adele - 21

There will never be another album like 21, ever again. It’s the closest we’ve come to a Thriller in my lifetime: a mono-cultural hit machine, and an album that virtually everyone could agree on no matter their music tastes. 25 may have racked up a more impressive sales week figure, but 21 just didn’t go away for years. In the age of streaming, artists like Drake have figured out how to game the system with long albums packed with filler, or by tacking already-successful singles onto the end of albums to win more “equivalent album units” on the Billboard charts. But 21 arrived just before the streaming revolution and muscled its way toward radio and sales dominance for one primary reason: it was fucking good. I know I mentioned Thriller above, but 21 actually has more in common with another hit machine album: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It combines irresistible pop hooks with the doldrums of heartbreak and then strands everything on the edge of a dark and stormy night. I actually got into 21 and Rumours at the same time, in the spring following my sophomore year of college. I was beguiled by their shadowy presences, and by the way they seemed to pair together so naturally: “Dreams” and “Set Fire to the Rain”; “Rumour Has It” and “Gold Dust Woman”; “Songbird” and “Someone Like You.” I vividly recall driving around my hometown on dozens of rainy nights that spring, listening to these two albums and being positively haunted by the ghosts of former lovers littered throughout. 21 rightfully spawned a parade of hits—one of which (“Rolling in the Deep”) might be the single of the past 10 years. But to me, its biggest accomplishment is the mood it conjures over the course of 11 tracks and 48 minutes. “Someone Like You” has enough pathos to wallop you on its own, but coming after all the ups and downs of the album as a whole, it’s one of the most draining, authentic, and beautiful moments of music from this decade. Find me a mainstream album since with half as much heart and soul.

73. Dawes - We're All Gonna Die

By every account, We’re All Gonna Die was a surprise. It released only a little over a year after All Your Favorite Bands, and its arrival was heralded by “When the Tequila Runs Out” as the lead single, a wild, borderline novelty song that sounds nothing like the band’s Laurel Canyon folk-rock roots. The album as a whole is zany and subversive, a contradictory collection that flits between finding meaning in everything and finding meaning in nothing. It feels almost Tarantino-esque in its construction, winding together a series of seemingly-unrelated vignette-based songs until “it all runs together, as if by design.” The album as a whole plays out like a sort of midlife crisis. On the title track, Taylor Goldsmith sings about losing connection with his own art—to the point where he envies the passion of the kid in the front row at one of his shows, singing his songs back to him with twice the commitment he can muster. “Roll with the Punches” is a scathing song about divorce and the petty battles that two soon-to-be ex-spouses choose to stage as they work toward uncoupling from one another. “For No Good Reason” focuses in part on a man who has decided to leave his wife for reasons he can’t put into words. And “Quitter” sounds like it’ll be a self-loathing piece about lack of follow-through, but is actually a song about leaving behind bad habits and unfulfilling commitments in pursuit of something more. “You’re gonna have to quit everything, until you find one thing you won’t,” Goldsmith sings. It’s a wise line on what might be his wisest album, a surprisingly sharp and deep set of songs that a lot of fans missed because of how the album sounds. Produced boldly and brashly by Blake Mills, Goldsmith’s former bandmate and current musical confidante, We’re All Gonna Die bursts out the gate with the vibrant, fuzzed-up hooks of “One of Us” and proceeds never to opt for the easy or conventional way out for the remainder of its 10-song tracklist. It is a decidedly studio album from a band that usually trades in live, organic execution. A lot of fans hated it—10 percent of the Amazon reviews are one-star ratings—but We’re All Gonna Die proved an important point that rock bands either need to prove early or burn out prematurely: it proved that Dawes could do anything.

74. Jack's Mannequin - People & Things

My most vivid memory of People & Things is of it playing the perfect “road trip record” role. Back during my college years, I’d frequently drive the three hours north from my college town to my hometown for a weekend at home. The weekend I’m thinking of was one of my favorites: an early October beauty when the sun was out and the temperature still felt like summertime, even as the leaves changed from green to golden. It was one of the most gorgeous drives I’ve ever had: the sun beating down; Michigan’s early autumn color at its best; nothing but blue skies for miles; the highway to myself on a Thursday afternoon. These songs only made the trip more perfect. On People & Things, it sounded like Andrew McMahon was trying to untangle the mythos of the American heartland, one sunburned highway at a time. Thoroughly gone were his emo and pop-punk roots. Here, McMahon mined Americana and classic rock ‘n’ roll, packing in songs that sound like Petty and Dylan and Springsteen and Billy Joel, plus a touch of Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John. It was a fitting mixtape for the road—both for that beautiful day in the fall of 2011 and for this chapter of McMahon’s career. Where the Jack’s Mannequin narrative had begun on “Holiday from Real” with McMahon ditching his hometown for a whirlwind summer on the west coast, People & Things closes with “Casting Lines,” a literal homecoming. McMahon would start yet another new chapter a few years later with his In the Wilderness project, but Jack’s Mannequin remains his career peak and this album—while arguably the least spectacular of his core albums—is a sun-drenched opus perfect for windows-down drives in an Indian summer.

75. The 1975 - The 1975

Over the years, The 1975 have been praised and derided, in equal measure for a lot of things. They’ve been noted for their ambition. They’ve been noted for their willingness to overreach. They’ve been noted for being kind of annoying but also kind of brilliant. They’ve been noted for drawing convincingly from a whole slew of different genres, from rock ‘n’ roll to electronic to sheer boy-band pop. I fell in love with them at their simplest: a U2-style power ballad called “Robbers,” culled from the middle of this album, their debut full-length. In an alternate timeline, it’s entirely possible that The 1975 would have ended up meaning nothing to me. I’ve always been more split on them than many of their admirers, glimpsing both their brilliance and their hubris—especially in 2018’s overblown, occasionally brilliant but often kind-of-obnoxious A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships. But The 1975 and “Robbers” especially were examples of perfect timing. This album leaked on the web the Friday of Labor Day weekend 2013. That afternoon, shortly after I’d loaded the album onto my iPod, my girlfriend and I drove the five or six hours from where we were living in Naperville, Illinois to our hometown of Traverse City, Michigan for a weekend spent with family. Some 24 hours later, on a sun-drenched beach in Northern Michigan, I got down on one knee and asked the girl I loved to marry me. It might have been happenstance or accident or serendipity, but the album I was playing throughout that day was The 1975. The big, bold hooks on songs like “Girls” and “Heart Out” and “Settle Down” seemed to encapsulate the warmth and splendor of the last of summer as I drove into town to pick up her ring, or as I took the bayside roads to her parents’ house. But “Robbers” was the best, a song with a sweeping, romantic, epic scope that felt so appropriate for that day. The song itself is only questionably romantic: it’s a Bonnie and Clyde narrative, about two people whose love story is entwined with wreaking havoc on others. But that day, as I prepared to ask the girl I’d loved for three-plus years to spend her life with me, it felt like the score to a romantic movie. The big, grandiose swell—abetted by the absolutely do-or-die commitment of frontman Matty Healy—called to mind that scene at the end of every romantic comedy, where the guy chases the girl through the airport, confesses his love, and sweeps her up into a crowd-pleasing kiss. Having that song, on that day, for that moment, it felt like fate, and it will never stop coloring how I feel about this catchy, emotional, wildly inventive pop album.

76. Carly Pearce - Every Little Thing

From start to finish, Every Little Thing is one of the best country debuts to come along in the past 10 years. Pearce has one of those voices that can sell anything, from tender ballads to big hooks, from breakup songs to songs that capture that excitement and vibrancy of new love, from lonely pleas to sexy come-ons. Even on lesser songs, like the for-some-reason-a-single “Hide the Wine” or the catchy-but-formulaic “Color,” the charisma and tuneful beauty of Pearce’s voice makes sure every moment is enjoyable. When Pearce lends her voice to a knockout bit of writing, though, the results are magic. It’s not uncommon to hear songs about the dangers of alcohol or the simple charms of home on mainstream country records. In Pearce’s hands, though, those messages reach a higher plane. On “If My Name Was Whiskey,” about a woman begging her lover to quit his addictions and prioritize her instead, she captures the desperation, vulnerability, and ultimate heartbreak of the situation. And on “I Need a Ride Home,” she puts something we’ve all felt into words: the urge, when things get tough, to run back to a time and place when everything felt safe and low-stakes. And while heartbreak and sadness undeniably suit Pearce well—the title track, a piano-driven breakup ballad, even managed to top the female-averse country charts in 2017—tracks like “Honeysuckle” and “I Dare Ya” are the album’s highlights, marvelous, euphoric pop-country songs that conjure up the warmth of summer, the thrill of a new crush, the joy of a windows-down car ride, the smell of a small town, and the heart-thumping longing of a first kiss.

77. Turnpike Troubadours - The Turnpike Troubadours

Turnpike Troubadours had one of the most heartbreaking narrative arcs of the decade. They entered it as a promising country band with major chops in both the songwriting and musical departments. They’re exiting it with their future in doubt and their frontman mired in troubles of alcoholism, infidelity, and divorce. It’s possible that there will never be another Turnpike Troubadours album, which makes this record—their self-titled mission statement and their ultimate peak—all the more special. The Turnpike Troubadours opens with one of the most visceral bursts of music this decade: a sweeping fiddle melody that sounds downright triumphant. The song it heralds, called “The Bird Hunters,” is a microcosm of everything that makes frontman Eric Felker one of the sharpest songwriting talents in country music when he has his wits about him. The way the song folds flashback and memory into its narrative is as deft as the work of any master short-story writer, but somehow fits into the mold of a catchy, singalong song. It’s arguably not even the best song on a record that also features crunchy bar-band rave-ups (the one-two punch of “The Mercury” and “Down Here”), radiant turn-of-the-season beauties (“Ringing in the Year”), and small, vulnerable Paul Simon-esque ditties (“A Little Song”). In fact, the crowning moment is almost certainly “Long Drive Home,” which is among the most insightful, wry, and devastating accounts of divorce ever put into song. “I guess what I'll miss the most will be the mornings/The squeak of a hardwood floor as you start out your day,” Felker begins. When he reaches the song’s climactic punchline, it’s maybe my single favorite moment in a song this decade: today’s lovers, Felker muses, aren’t willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears that are required to build a lasting relationship—or anything great, for that matter. “They all wanna be Hank Williams,” Felker surmises; “They don’t wanna have to die.”
78. Lori McKenna - The Bird and the Rifle

Lori McKenna has always been an incredible poet of the human experience. On The Bird and the Rifle, she largely turns those skills toward small towns and the people who live there. She’s writing about the places that highways pass by without a thought, and the characters in them whose stories rarely get told. The result is a magnetic and emotionally wrenching album—a record that will resonate for anyone who ever grew up away from a city with a name everyone knows. Some of the characters long to escape their surroundings, like the woman in the title track who (metaphorically) flies the coop to escape a controlling and abusive husband. Some of them wait too long to leave and end up stuck—like the couple in “We Were Cool,” who trade their youthful recklessness for the stability of parenthood, only to end up wondering how their lives might have turned out differently. On “Giving up on Your Hometown,” McKenna ponders what it is too lose your hometown while you are still living in it. No matter how much a place may feel like its yours, so many things can combine to wrench it you’re your grasp: years, and economic ups and downs, and the deaths of loved ones, and the changes in the world at large. How can we stand up against the onslaught of time, even as it takes the things we cherish most? McKenna’s songs are wrought with wistful melancholy that could easily turn to jaded regret. Instead, though, she has another philosophy on how to live in a tough world that often forgets about the little people in their little towns: “Hold the door, say please, say thank you/Don't steal, don't cheat, and don't lie/I know you got mountains to climb/But always stay humble and kind.”

79. The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow 

It’s not every day you stumble across a new act that you immediately know is remarkably special. Such was the case with The Civil Wars. Right from the very beginning of the very first song, it was clear that Joy Williams and John Paul White were tapping into something special. As individuals, they were both obviously talented. Their voices were unique and beautiful enough to carry strong solo material, as they have gone on to do since. But together, they were more than the sum of their parts. It was like they crossed over into another plane of being when their timbres entwined. That alchemy, between Joy Williams’ aching voice and John Paul White’s stormy croon, made for songs that were haunting, devastating, and altogether exhilarating. They won their country bona fides on southern gothic beauties like “20 Years” and “Barton Hollow,” but the song that convinced everyone they were the real deal was “Poison & Wine.” Even almost 10 years later, it still sounds as chilling and as devastating as it did that first time. “Your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine/Your think your dreams are the same as mine”; “The less I give, the more I get back”; “I don’t have a choice, but I still choose you”; “I don’t love you, but I always will.” It’s a rich, complex song that sounds simple, sung with so much affection and resentment and deep, truthful emotion that you can’t help but be swept under its wake. It’s a song about a relationship that is, by all accounts, dysfunctional. The couple fights constantly, to the point where they end up, by the chorus, questioning whether they even still love each other. But they also are deeply in love, in a way that makes the way they treat one another that much less forgivable. It’s a breakup song that sounds like a love song, and a love song that sounds like a divorce. That dichotomy—between love and hate, between devotion and abandonment—ultimately came to define The Civil Wars as a whole, so it’s fitting that “Poison & Wine” remains their signature song. It lit a match on a fractious flame that could only burn for a finite amount of time, but that burned like all hell and heaven while it could. Barton Hollow is the first of two masterpieces wrought from that tumultuous flame.

80. John Fullbright - Songs

Songs might sound like a lazy album title, but when you hear John Fullbright’s second full-length, you understand exactly why he chose it. The focus here is on writing, and in terms of pure songwriting craft, there were very few records from this decade that measured up to Songs. Fullbright, an ex-member of the Texas country outfit Turnpike Troubadours, has largely kept a low profile for the past 10 years. He hasn’t released an album of his own since Songs, which followed 2012’s louder, Grammy-nominated From the Ground Up. But Songs is the kind of record that is so good that it could reasonably take five-plus years to deliver a worthy follow-up. It’s packed to the brim with nuance and melancholy emotion, with stories that feel like they live in your bones after the first time you hear them. After sharing this album with my wife, she came back to me talking about the song that made her weep uncontrollably at her desk at work. That song was “High Road,” about a farmer killed in a tragic tractor accident during a rainstorm, and about the future he’d planned with the girl he loved that disappeared in an instant. It’s one of many sad, sobering moments that play out on Songs. On “When You’re Here,” Fullbright turns the image of a scarecrow with a bluebird on its shoulder into an explosive burst of pure pathos. And on “She Knows,” he weaves a tale of a girl who “knows a thing or two about rain” into one of the decade’s most unspeakably beautiful ballads, thanks in part to a piano line that sounds like a gentle summer drizzle. Had he been a little more active, Fullbright might have taken his place in the Americana resurgence alongside beloved songwriterly names like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. We might have to wait until the 2020s to see that narrative play out, but at least Fullbright gave us this perfect gift of an album in the meantime.

81. Josh Ritter - Fever Breaks

Ever since he leveled up on 2006’s The Animal Years, Josh Ritter has been someone who you could describe fairly as one of the best songwriters alive. For most of his career, though, Ritter has been something of an impressionist, writing poetic songs dense with religious imagery, literary allusions, and boatloads of figurative language. His songs have skewed heavily narrative at times (“Another New World,” from 2010’s So Runs the World Away) as well as achingly personal (“Joy to You Baby,” from his 2013 divorce album The Beast in Its Tracks), but he’s rarely been a chronicler of the times in the way his early comparisons to Dylan might have suggested. That changes on Fever Breaks, an urgent and turbulent record deeply informed by the Trump years. Produced by Jason Isbell and backed by Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit, Fever Breaks is loud and muscular, a protest rock record that is in terms indignant (“All Some Kind of Dream,” a stunned, sad survey of just some of the current administration’s wrongs) and hopeful (“Blazing Highway Home,” about stumbling down the road toward something better). It is, frankly, everything you’d hope an alliance of two world-class songwriters would bring about.

82. A Thousand Horses - Southernality

In a lot of ways, Southernality was the album that made me a die-hard country music fan. It wasn’t the first album that I loved from the genre, nor is it the greatest. But it’s the album that clued me in to just how much great songwriting was going on in Nashville, even beyond the buzzed-about “anti-establishment” heroes like Isbell, Stapleton, and Musgraves. All I needed to know to give the record a fair, open listen was that Dave Cobb had sat in the producer’s chair. Once I’d listened to the songs, that was maybe the thing I cared least about. Ever since I became a music fan, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a “summertime album.” Southernality was a pitch-perfect one: a record of loud guitars and effortless twang that calls to mind the best summer nights you have ever had. The big hit was “Smoke,” an indelible anthem of longing and regret that lifts the guitar riff from Third Eye Blind’s “How’s It Going to Be,” to incredible, wistful effect. But in another era—perhaps the 90s, when this kind of country-rock skyrocketed bands like The Wallflowers up the charts—Southernality would have been a multi-platinum juggernaut. There might not have been a better summer road trip song this decade than “Heaven Is Close,” unless it was “Sunday Morning,” or maybe “Tennessee Whiskey.” And while every country artist writes at least one tribute to their hometown, few are as affecting as “Where I’m Going,” a coming home song that pulses with the anticipation of being back in a place you always loved. This record came into my life at the outset of one of my favorite summers in recent memory, and it calls back so much of that season: sweltering runs on hot summer mornings; beers out on the porch of the first house I ever owned; writing sessions for my first album. I fell deeply in love with country music that summer, completely reconfiguring my music tastes in a matter of three short months. Without this album, I’m not sure any of that would ever have happened.

83. Taylor Swift - Lover

After Reputation, I didn’t think I’d ever love another Taylor Swift album—at least, not in the way that I’d loved Red or 1989 or Speak Now. The early singles from Lover—“ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” both truly ghastly songs—did nothing to assuage this feeling. But Lover is everything that Reputation and those songs weren’t: intimate, smart, and fun. Reputation took a big turn in the direction of modern mainstream pop, co-opting elements of hip-hop and R&B for an album that didn’t fit Taylor’s skillset at all. Lover is still a pop album—this isn’t the “return to country” release that will inevitably arrive at some point in the next 10 years—but it scales things back from the brash, blaring, inorganic production of Reputation. These songs feel more rooted in singer-songwriter territory, and Taylor lets the instrumentation be more varied than the bevy of synths that have dominated her pop era so far. More importantly, Taylor’s back to her relatable, diaristic writing style. In many ways, it’s a sequel to Red. That album was about the love stories that don’t last. “There’s something to be proud of about moving on and realizing that real love shines golden like starlight, and doesn’t fade or spontaneously combust,” she wrote in the liner notes. “Maybe I’ll write a whole album about that kind of love if I ever find it.” Lover is that album. It captures the way things feel when you know you’ve found the one: “Paper Rings” is the sugar rush of the honeymoon stage; “False God” is the bedroom sex jam; “Daylight” is the wedding vow; “Lover” is the wedding slow dance. In between these moments, Taylor sprinkles in songs about other things: a scathing indictment of sexism on “The Man”; a heart-shattering lullaby about her mom’s cancer battle on “Soon You’ll Get Better”; a peerless summer jam on “Cruel Summer.” The result is a collection isn’t quite as cohesive—or quite as great—as Red, but that still acts as a welcome spiritual successor to the greatest album Taylor Swift ever made.

84. Kelsea Ballerini - Unapologetically

On her first album, the fittingly titled The First Time, Kelsea Ballerini showed a lot of promise. She knew her way around a hook, her storytelling was strong, and her voice had enough spirit and sass to give her the X-factor. What she didn’t have, yet, was a cohesive and unified vision for the kind of album she wanted to make. The First Time, as enjoyable as it is, is a grab bag of songs loosely structured around the trials, tribulations, and joys of coming-of-age. Unapologetically, in contrast, is a deliberate song cycle, an album that charts the steps from a breakup to a new love over the course of 12 tracks. It’s Ballerini’s take on Taylor Swift’s Red, another album that captures just how much you feel when you are young and first discovering the way love and relationships can have you floating on a cloud one day and crashing down to earth the next. Ballerini writes about the journey—an autobiographical one that spans a year of her own life—with wit, sensitivity, and a writerly craft that has clearly developed since her last album. She compares a boy leaving a trail of broken hearts to an undertaker filling in plots in a graveyard (savage!) and muses about how, as much as she misses her old beau, she misses the person she had to stifle to appease him even more. There’s no mercy here: not for the guy who thinks his ex-girlfriend is showing up at the same bar he’s at just to make his life hell, and certainly not for the faded-glory douchebag who can’t move on from high school. Ballerini herself pegged the record as a love album—the song “Unapologetically” is a starry-eyed admission of infatuation—but the best thing about the record is how it takes breakup album tropes and unapologetically flips them on their head. There’s the usual sadness, but it gives way to self-discovery—just like the bitterness gives way to sober, analytical assessments of why that old relationship didn’t work. The result is an insightful exploration of womanhood, of feminism, of independence, of dysfunctional relationships, and of partners who are good for us and bad for us. By deconstructing breakup songs and love songs, Ballerini made one of decade’s best displays of either form.

85. Tyler Hilton - Indian Summer

Some people love sports movies. Some people love medical procedural TV shows. I love summer albums. It doesn’t matter how many times I hear the tropes or revisit the same concepts. There’s just something about albums written for summertime that will always be wheelhouse for me. Tyler Hilton’s Indian Summer is a bullseye for that sensibility. “One More Song” is about a summer night with a girl that stretches all the way into morning, just talking and laughing and kissing and reminiscing. “That Kind of Night” is about a riotous, drunken bonfire with all your friends—the kind of raucous, late-night celebration that can only happen in a youthful summertime when nobody has any big responsibilities. “Indian Summer” is about a summer fling that can last a little bit longer thanks to an unseasonably warm autumn. And that’s just the first three tracks! In these songs, Tyler Hilton distills so much of what it is to be young and in love and clinging to July and August like they might never come again. There’s something about summertime that makes music sound grander, beer taste better, love feel more romantic, and nights feel more full of possibility. This album, in 36 minutes of spartan acoustic-and-piano-driven songs, captures that X-factor of the season as well as any music released in the past 10 years. 

86. Matt Nathanson - Show Me Your Fangs

Even by Matt Nathanson’s standards—he once told me he likes to make albums with “great topography”—Show Me Your Fangs is all over the place. It’s a beautiful mess of a record, an album with euphoric peaks so high and emotional valleys so low that you almost question how all the songs made it onto the same album. “Gold in the Summertime” is as jovial as feel-good, warm-weather anthems get, complete with a soulful horn section and lyrics about rooftops in SoHo and Prince on the radio. But then there are songs like “Disappear,” about a self-destructive person with the ability to ruin even the best and most stable things in his life, or “Playlists and Apologies,” about how mixtapes and professions of love can curdle into something a whole lot uglier when a relationship ends badly. The album loses points for its whiplash mood, but wins them back for some of Matt’s sharpest songwriting. The hooks are off the charts (tracks like “Giants” and “Show Me Your Fangs” are crowd-pleasing sing-alongs for the ages), and the lyrical work is witty, honest, self-deprecating, and unique. Only Matt Nathanson could take a song inspired by a dream about Bill Murray and turn it into a quirky and sad love song about cherishing the things that really matter in life. It all works so well that the lack of cohesion hardly matters. Show Me Your Fangs is an album for the playlist generation, where moods change as fast as songs and where uniformity might be mistaken for uneventfulness. Every time I spin the vinyl, I’m astonished at how well it plays from start to finish.

87. Tyler Childers - Purgatory

How much of youth is governed by the id? By basic, instinctual drives? By the push to prioritize one’s self—one’s pleasures, one’s instant gratification—over responsibilities or better judgments? Purgatory seems to answer that question with the most obvious answer: just about all of it. Purgatory is an album about growing up, told almost in real-time. The first three-quarters of the album are dominated by characters for whom the id always wins out. The narrator in “Swear (to God)” is nursing a monster hangover from a night of “fierce abandon.” The protagonist in “Feathered Indians” nearly blows his chance with a religious gal when he comes over for a makeout session “too fucked up to get back home.” Sometimes, the ends of these tales are even darker, like in “Banded Clovis,” where a desperate, opiate-addicted treasure hunter kills a friend over an ancient arrowhead sure to fetch a few dollars. This album is youth in all its wildness and unpredictability. Sometimes, that wildness proves to be little more than fuel for fondly remember tales. Sometimes, it leads down deeper rabbit holes, where the innocent chaos of youth gives way to something more sinister. Childers, who grew up in Appalachia and who has seen some of the most vicious effects of the opioid crisis firsthand, knows how that second script can play out. The fact that he calls his coming-of-age album Purgatory is no mistake, because for a lot of modern teens and twentysomethings, those years between youth and adulthood prove to be treacherous. Childers manages to get out alive, finding his way to deeper self-reflection and understanding (“Universal Sound”) and ultimately to enduring love (“Lady May”). But what makes Purgatory a masterpiece is how it flirts with the possibility of going off the path and never finding your way back, as so many don’t.

88. Matthew Mayfield - A Banquet for Ghosts

Sometimes it’s nice to luxuriate in solitude. In melancholy. In regret. In sadness. Not for too long: maybe just an hour, or a day, or a weekend. But every once in awhile, it can be a relief just to get away from everyone and everything and be alone with your thoughts. A Banquet for Ghosts, to me, has always been an album about that kind of loneliness: the kind that’s self-imposed and maybe even desired. It’s leaving a party and feeling the relief in your chest as you climb into your car in the pouring rain and drive home to an empty house where you can just be. Where you can hold a banquet with all your thoughts and fears and regrets and could-have-beens. Songs like the ones on this album, fragile acoustic things with big cathartic builds, are the most fitting soundtrack for these moments. Mayfield seems to spend most of the album thinking about a girl that’s gone. There are flitters of hope that she might come back: on “Always Be You,” she calls out of the blue after two years of silence, asking to talk. But mostly, she’s the one who got away, and Mayfield is content with letting her be just that. He’s okay with her being a ghost that he can think about fondly when he’s luxuriating in his solitude. These songs build a fortress out of that solitude, a place where the melancholy vulnerability of soft lullabies like “Beautiful” and “Safe & Sound” feels like a warm blanket in a candlelit room, as the rain lashes the windows outside. When the rain stops, you’ll have to pull yourself together and rejoin the world. In the meantime, few things sound better than this record.

89. The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding

One of the big debates among indie rock fans this decade is about which War on Drugs record was better. Lost in the Dream was anointed as a classic first. Thanks in part to a 2014 release slate that lacked in major artists or critical-darling releases, Dream got to ride a wave as that year’s most critically admired LP. In terms of cohesion and flow, it might even be a masterpiece. But I’ve always held that A Deeper Understanding is better, if only because the individual songs reach higher highs. The obvious centerpiece is “Thinking of a Place,” which stretches on for 10 minutes of sublime guitar heroics and scene-setting ambiance. But other tracks—the ‘80s-Springsteen pop blast of “In Chains,” or the post-relationship life crisis that plays out in “Holding On”—stand among the most thrilling and visceral rock music anyone made this decade. For me, this record is a reminder of a few days spent with a very good friend who I don’t see enough. We became like brothers in college and he moved to London shortly thereafter. Right around when A Deeper Understanding dropped, he came to visit my wife and I. I remember going out to breakfast the morning after drinking way too many beers together and before ultimately going our separate ways, knowing we probably wouldn’t see each other for at least a year. “You can be free, sometimes brave/Sometimes all you want to do is run away,” sings Adam Granduciel in “You Don’t Have to Go,” this album’s final track. Saying goodbye, driving away, bidding another long unpredictable farewell to a friend I used to see everyday: those moments were painfully melancholy, and these songs seemed to do them justice.
90. Chris Stapleton - From A Room (Volumes 1 and 2)

After Traveller, Chris Stapleton could have released a collection of 18th century Irish folk songs and had it go number one on the country charts. His brand was so hot in 2016 and 2017 that he legitimately could do no wrong. I’m not sure what I expected from his sophomore album, but it wasn’t From A Room. On the one hand, the album was a flex: not many artists have the power to release what is effectively a double album—albeit, two albums released at two different times, a few months apart—as their second major move as an artist. The fact that Stapleton did this roughly two years after Traveller launched to niche acclaim but minimal sales was nothing short of incredible. On the other hand, the actual songs on From A Room are about as bare banes as you can get. A fair few of the tracks have nothing but Stapleton’s voice and an acoustic guitar, and even the ones that go a bit “bigger” still feel small and no-frills. At the time, it was thrilling just to hear Stapleton’s voice on another collection of songs. Almost three years later, From A Room feels weirder by the month. Legend has it that Stapleton wrote no new songs for either of these records, and just relied on the tunes he already had in the bank. That’s both a testament to the depth of his songbook—imagine sitting on something like “Scarecrow in the Garden” or “Broken Halos” (Stapleton’s first number one hit) and not releasing it—and a missed opportunity for what Stapleton could have done at what will likely prove to be the peak of his powers. Still, From A Room is a masterclass of no-nonsense craft—a collection of well-written, incredibly well-sung songs (no track from this decade has quite the vocal gravitas of “Either Way,” for instance)—that call back to an era when even albums from big superstars weren’t meant to be events. 

91. Parker Milsap - The Very Last Day

It’s the end of the fucking world; let’s have a good laugh about it. That’s more or less Parker Millsap’s attitude on The Very Last Day, the most thrillingly apocalyptic album of the decade. It’s also one of the most prescient. Released in the spring of 2016, in the midst of a soul-deadening election year that would end with a caricature of a human being on the throne, The Very Last Day made humans look as stupid and misguided as we’ve spent the past three and a half years proving ourselves to be. In “Heaven Sent,” a son lays out an entreaty for his father—a preacher—to still love him even though he’s gay. We don’t find out what happens, but we can guess: the dad chooses his precious faith over his own flesh and blood. That much is signaled by the very next song, the title track, where the world meets its end and the religious zealots have a rude awakening: this ain’t no rapture and God’s not sweeping down in his chariot to save you. No, Millsap’s apocalypse isn’t anything meaningful or profound; it just means we finally succeeded in blowing ourselves up. The Very Last Day is packed with similarly dire scenes, whether it’s a desperate and forgotten veteran holding up a convenience store so that he can feed his family (“Hands Up”) or Literal Satan inviting a girl to climb into his car for a pleasure cruise (“Hades Pleads”). By the end of the album—and by the end of the year in which it came out—the only natural course of action might be to what the narrator does in “A Little Fire”: strike a match and leave everything burning in your rearview as you drive away. 

92. Keane - Strangeland

Keane never got enough credit. Early on, they weren’t cool enough. The indie kids preferred The Strokes and Arcade Fire, while the more mainstream-leaning rock fans latched onto The Killers. What kind of time did anyone have for some “wussy” piano rock band? Funnily enough, all these years later, the estimation about Keane seems to have come back around. When Kacey Musgraves covered “Somewhere Only We Know” in 2018, a lot of people came out of the woodwork claiming to love the song, as well as the album it came from. Now, with a reunion in progress and a new album out, maybe Keane will finally get their due for the catchy, heartfelt, super-durable songs they made back in the mid-2000s. If so, I hope the renaissance includes a re-estimation of Strangeland, one of the decade’s most overlooked gems. More stately and grandiose than the band’s earlier work, Strangeland sounds like someone put Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 in a blender and turned it on. The songs are soaring, massive, and impossibly catchy, from the Joshua Tree-esque “You Are Young” to the zippy “On the Road.” Keyboardist and songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley is still as good at penning big, arena-filling hooks as anyone has been post-2000, and singer Tom Chaplin still has the big voice and go-for-broke delivery to make sure they reach the cheap seats. But my favorite thing about Strangeland is the surprisingly nuanced lyrical work. The songs are packed with flickers of memory that carry a real sense of place. See the vivid childhood recollections of “Sovereign Light Café” or the small-town stagnation of “Neon River,” where the protagonist’s glory days fade away like graffiti on a bowling alley wall. Arguably the best song on the record, meanwhile, gets left as a b-side. “Strangeland,” the song, is an aching tale of two lovers who make a plea to run away together, stocking the car with maps and mixtapes for the getaway. We don’t know where they’re going or if they ever get there. We don’t even know what Strangeland is, though I have my suspicions that it’s a metaphor for growing up. We just know that they lose each other somewhere along the road, as so many young lovers do.

93. The Killers - Wonderful Wonderful

The Killers won everyone over by writing songs that chronicled and glorified the reckless hedonism of Las Vegas nights. When they turned the spotlight on small towns and rural America on Sam’s Town, a lot of the early believers—critics included—turned on them for being overly self-serious. What was really happening, though, was that The Killers were growing up. Fast-forward to 2017 and Wonderful Wonderful, and this band barely even resembles what they were in those early days. Instead, Wonderful Wonderful is a record about all the things that probably no one wanted to think about when they were listening to “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” in 2004: family; marriage; fatherhood; mental illness; failure; midlife crisis; political strife. The consequence-free fun of Hot Fuss is more than over. Wonderful Wonderful was inspired by the very real, very serious battle with complex PTSD that Tana Mundkowsky—Brandon Flowers’ wife—fought in the years preceding the album’s creation and release. The result is an album that doubles as a wake-up call. Everyone has their issues; no one is invincible. Those revelations end up paving the way for the most honest, unguarded music The Killers have ever made. Flowers was always a somewhat self-conscious frontman—someone who tended to make reactionary left turns based on the critical responses to his albums. On Wonderful Wonderful, he takes big swings, not caring whether they come across as too earnest or too corny. The two biggest risks—the sweet, tender “Some Kind of Love,” which features his kids singing to their mother; and the titanic “Tyson vs. Douglas,” a complex anthem about watching your heroes fall—are arguably the finest pieces of songwriting in his oeuvre. Who would have guessed that the same guy who once sang about a “boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that [he] had in February of last year” would end up writing such wise, nuanced songs about being a husband and father?
94. Yellowcard - Yellowcard

There’s something to be said for artists getting to say their goodbyes deliberately, on their own terms. The first time Yellowcard said goodbye, with 2007’s Paper Walls, it seemed like an afterthought. The band’s fame had petered out and it wasn’t clear if they were ever going to come back. “We can’t stay in Neverland forever,” frontman Ryan Key said, as if being in a band had to be a young man’s game. When Yellowcard came back in 2011, they proved that wasn’t true. The band’s run this decade was the finest stretch of their career, featuring both their most creative album (Lift a Sail) and their best (Southern Air). Yellowcard, the band’s swansong (for real this time) is not the best of the bunch, but it’s an awfully good way to say goodbye. Yellowcard spent most of their career writing songs that captured the bold freedom of youth. Their last two albums went beyond that, with Lift a Sail facing the trials and tribulations of adulthood and Yellowcard acknowledging that, eventually, some things just run their course. But the result is an emotionally gripping and satisfying collection of songs, one that plays almost like a series-ending book or a big climactic movie finale. It’s the Avengers: Endgame of the Yellowcard catalog: an album that compiles everything the band does well into one place, before paying off every bit of fan service the band had been hinting at for years. By the time the record spins to a close, with the violin-drenched, country-tinged lullaby of “Fields & Fences,” it really does feel like it’s time to bid farewell.

95. Miranda Lambert - The Weight of These Wings

Most double albums are exercises in excess, or hubris, or ill-advised experimentation. Oddly, when Miranda Lambert tried her hand at the form, it was to make something more honest, more intimate, and altogether smaller-scale than the music she’d made in the past. That may sound like a contradiction, because how can a 24-song, 95-minute song cycle possibly be described as “small scale”? But Lambert made this album in the wake of her divorce, from fellow country superstar Blake Shelton, and it’s mostly comprised of sad, contemplative songs. Lambert made her name on scorched-earth breakup anthems wrought from gunpowder, lead, kerosene, and broken hearts. When her marriage crumbled, though, she succumbed to the same sadness and melancholy that the rest of us feel at the ends of the relationships we really thought were going to last. She gets behind the wheel of a car and drives, with no clue where she’s going but with a mind set on running. She stumbles home from a hookup in the harsh morning light, knowing that she’ll be back seeking solace from her loneliness the next night. And she wishes, with complete earnestness, that she didn’t have a heart that could hurt this badly. In between, there are moments of levity: songs about drinking until closing, and rocking cheap sunglasses, and missing the good ol’ days, and having out-of-this-world sex. But The Weight of These Wings ultimately succeeds because the ballads hit so hard and cut so deep. On this record, Lambert turned her broken heart into an epic-length blockbuster, and made one of the great country albums of the decade as a result.

96. Twin Forks - Twin Forks

In my teenage years, I gravitated toward the music of Dashboard Confessional because of the angst. Chris Carrabba had a knack for making heartbreak and sadness sound noble and romantic. I figured that, eventually, those songs would get me through breakups. That never really happened. Instead, Carrabba’s music ended up serving as a surprising through line to my love story with my wife. The night I realized I was in love with her, “Dusk and Summer” was playing. So, fittingly, when we finally got married, four years into our relationship, it was Carrabba who was there to provide the soundtrack. As the frontman for Twin Forks, Carrabba traded the angsty emo of Dashboard for the twangy, feel-good folk-pop jams of The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons. The difference was Carrabba’s writing. Always such a deft chronicler of matters of the heart, Carrabba built Twin Forks into arguably the decade’s ultimate summer-in-love album. Tracks like “Can’t Be Broken,” “Back to You,” “Kiss Me Darling,” “Something We’ll Just Know” and “Cross My Mind” are impossibly catchy love songs that call to mind swooning summer flings set against the backdrop of small beachside towns. The songs are so effortlessly infectious that it’s difficult to believe this record didn’t somehow become a smash—whether as part of the early-decade folk-rock revival or on the radio in the summer-loving country music format. For my wife and I, though, Twin Forks was like a photo album of the summer we got married. 

97. U2 - Songs of Innocence

The legacy of Songs of Innocence will always be tarnished by the way in which it was released to the world. In partnership with Apple, U2 gave the album away to every single iTunes user. Apple meant it as generosity. U2 meant it as a way to keep rock ‘n’ roll grandiose and universal in an era where neither of those terms applied to much rock music. Both of those intentions backfired. Twitter savaged both brands for their hubris, in thinking that everyone even wanted a U2 album. Plenty of people thought Songs of Innocence was an invasion of privacy in the form of an album, thanks to the fact that the album just appeared on users’ iPhones without warning or consent. All these factors bogged down what is, on the whole, a very strong set of songs. When Songs of Innocence arrived in the fall of 2014, U2 had been away for the better part of six years. Hearing them again, in any form, would have been a pleasure—at least to me. But even I was pleasantly surprised by Innocence, which took the complacency you would expect from a band almost 40 years into their career and threw it out the window. Here was the most personal and autobiographical album that Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. had ever made together. It’s an album about youthful hopes and adolescent rage; about kids and their relationships with their parents; about friendships and young love; about home and what it takes to leave it; about violent neighborhoods and family tragedies. Most of all, it’s about four guys who found their way together as young lads and somehow stayed together for the next four-plus decades. Musically, the album is neutered somewhat by too-clean production from the likes of Ryan Tedder and Danger Mouse. In trying to make the songs palatable for modern pop radio, U2 dulled the edge of what should have been their dirtiest, thrashiest, most urgent album since War. But the songs are too strong to be undone by something so simple as production, and tracks like “Every Breaking Wave,” “Song for Someone,” “Cedarwood Road,” and “The Troubles” ultimately resonate as some of the finest work in U2’s storied career.
98. The Hotelier - Home, Like NoPlace Is There

Sometimes, albums just feel important. They might not be your favorite albums, or the albums that seem to say the most about your life, but you can hear them once and know they are going to matter. That’s how I felt the first time I heard Home, Like NoPlace Is There. There was a gravity to it, not unlike what I felt the first time I heard Clarity or Transatlanticism or Funeral. There’s a certain sense of communal catharsis to these records that very quickly screams “This album is going to save lives.” With The Hotelier, I felt that X-factor right away. “Open the curtains/Singing birds tell me ‘Tear the buildings down,’” Christian Holden bellows at the top of the record, on a song called “An Introduction to the Album.” From those words, you’re in Holden’s world—a world of sadness and depression and feelings of inadequacy and crushing loss. The rest of the album keeps you there. It grapples with the death of friends and thoughts of suicide and abusive relationships and all the toxic things we try to escape in our lives that just seem to pull us deeper into their web. It’s a tough listen, and it’s not an album I put on the turntable very often for that reason. But it’s also a record that turns all its suffering into a rallying cry and a badge of honor. Here, The Hotelier were inviting everyone who’d suffered similar things to come and scream their vocal cords red—to be baptized in the burst of emotional noise and made clean again by the din. Writing for AbsolutePunk and watching people gravitate toward this album—watching people let it heal them and save them and keep them afloat—was a remarkable experience, and something that I’ll always remember. I’m used to music saving me, because it does it all the time. To be reminded of how music could save other people was heartening, and it underlined what I thought about this record from the start: that it was going to matter.

99. The Alternate Routes - Lately

In their earlier years, The Alternate Routes were a roots-rock band—not so far from what bands like The Wallflowers were doing in the ‘90s, or from the music The Damnwells made this decade. On Lately, they went full U2, delivering a record packed with sparkly, anthemic, guitar-driven arena rock. It’s their best album, an example of a young band swinging for the fences and punching above their weight class, in hopes that their chutzpah will make them superstars. Unfortunately, The Alternate Routes couldn’t will their way into stadiums, though that fact had a lot less to do with their talent than it did with this decade’s hostility toward rock music in general. In another time, “Carry Me Home”—the album’s proper opener and finest hour—would have morphed into a generational anthem. It carries the sweep of titanic album openers like “Baba O’Riley,” or like the first three tracks from The Joshua Tree. It just builds and builds, until it crests like a wave into a torrent of wordless vocal wails. It’s such an emotional peak that it threatens to write The Alternate Routes into a corner: how do you follow up a song like that? But with big, punchy rockers like “Rocking Chair,” “Stay,” and “Just the Same,” and with tender, aching ballads like “Raincoat” and “Two of a Kind,” Lately somehow manages to live up to its own larger-than-life commencement. It’s a shame these guys never got to the big rooms, because their music was absolutely made for them.
100. The Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt

The cover of The Wild Hunt is one of my favorite album covers of the decade. There’s nothing particularly special about it on first glance. It looks like the kind of shot you might snap on your iPhone out the window of car as you were riding through the middle of the rural American nowhere. But I love it for what it captures: the unbridled freedom and boundless solitude of the road—especially on a cloudy day as dusk approaches. The music on the album itself conveys a similar feeling: of leaving everything behind and driving straight off into a storm, never to be seen or heard from again. There’s so much folklore and myth tied up in that idea: of prodigal sons and would-be heroes disappearing on pipe-dream odysseys and maybe never making their way back. On The Wild Hunt, Kristian Matsson (the singer-songwriter who performs under the moniker of The Tallest Man on Earth) plays up those folkloric myths every chance he gets. “Rumor has it that I wasn’t born/I just walked in one frosty morn”; “I bend my arrows now in circles/And I shoot around the hill”; “There's a boy running downhill to the lowlands tonight/And he's catching the train to where he's heard you have been.” Matsson’s wanderers are otherworldly, immortal, strange, and fascinating. By his estimation, when you leave home and embark upon some journey, you leave the shackles of reality behind and encounter stranger things. Or maybe the wildness of Matsson’s stories is all just a metaphor for youth—so colorful and fresh and fascinating in the moment that it almost feels alien when you look back on it. The most clarity comes on the closing track, when Matsson muses about memories and how “we will never be a part of the pictures once taken.” Once those wild hunts of youth are gone, you can’t get them back. They live on in your head and become wayward myths of your own making. But every once in awhile, you might just get the urge to get in the car again, and hit that horizon one more time. “Will we ever confess what we’ve done?” Matsson asks in the song’s chorus; “Guess we’re still kids on the run.” 

101. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Here We Rest 

Jason Isbell lived out perhaps the greatest rise from the ashes narrative of any artist in the 2010s. That narrative started with 2013’s Southeastern, a record that is largely about Isbell’s sobriety, his then-recent marriage, and his newfound perspective on life. But in a lot of ways, the story begins here, two years earlier. They say that you have to hit rock bottom to recognize that you have a problem, and to make the vow to seek help and get better. On Here We Rest, Isbell wasn’t quite there yet, but you could sense in the songs that he was getting close. In particular, “Alabama Pines” sounds like a bleary-eyed Sunday morning drive the morning after a bender, with a pounding headache and nothing but the uncomfortable truths in the back of your mind for company. Having come to Isbell with Southeastern, I’m not sure how these songs would have played back then: if they shed any light on what their creator was going through, or what might become of him if he didn’t clean up his act. In retrospect, though, Here We Rest sounds like Isbell being honest with himself in his songs, before he could be honest with himself in real life. “I can’t stand the pain of being by myself without a little help on a Sunday afternoon,” he sings in “Alabama Pines,” longing for a visit to the only open liquor store for hundreds of miles. In “Go It Alone,” he’s realizing how close he’s come to death, and how far he had to fall to turn over a new leaf. And in “Stopping By,” he talks about the highway and the families he sees in the cars going the other way, all with the happiness and connection and fulfillment he’s seeking and never finding. It’s a sad album, one where the jauntiest tune is a cover song and the second jauntiest tune is a song named after a pain relief narcotic. Looking back, it’s a reminder both of how far a person can come in a short time, and of how remarkable a songwriter Jason Isbell always ways—even before he was in the right mind to take full advantage of his gifts.

102. Phoebe Bridgers - Stranger in the Alps

Stranger in the Alps is an impossibly sad album. My favorite track on it is called “Funeral,” which has never failed to absolutely drain me when I listen to it. It’s a song that captures so much about the way we think and talk about death: quietly, in whispers, as if trying to keep the fates from hearing our words and dealing us or someone in our lives a bad card; recklessly and stupidly, making jokes about killing ourselves and then immediately feeling bad about them. “Last night I blacked out in my car/And I woke up in my childhood bed/Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself/When I remembered someone's kid is dead.” Those words are so relatable, because we’ve all been there. We’ve all found ourselves in those moments of self-centered bullshit, even when tragedies have just rocked our lives, or our communities, or our nation. Even when we should feel grateful to be where we are and to have what we have. Stranger in the Alps is a dark listen because it forces us to contend with little thoughts like those that might not necessarily be comfortable. The songs grapple with mental health struggles, suicidal thoughts, emotional and physical abuse, and even murder. On the proper closer, a cover of Mark Kozelek’s deeply creepy but beguilingly pretty “You Missed My Heart,” Bridgers locates an unspeakable sense of sadness and futility amongst scenes of grisly homicide and execution. What I’ve always said about this album is that it’s one of the prettiest things in the world, full of songs about some of the ugliest things imaginable. The contradiction there makes Stranger in the Alps an album that I know will stay with me for a long time—even if it’s sometimes just too heavy to listen to.

103. The Menzingers - After the Party

“Where are we gonna go now that our twenties are over?” So goes the rallying cry of “Tellin’ Lies,” the raucous opener of After the Party. It’s also the album’s thesis statement, a question that The Menzingers spend the next 40-plus minutes trying to get to the bottom of. For the band and the characters in their songs, turning 30 scans not quite as a crisis moment, but certainly as a shock to the system. When you’re a teenager starting college or moving into your first apartment, your twenties seem huge—even endless. But they go by so fast: a dizzying whirlwind of romances and songs and half-forgotten nights that seems to be over in about half the time that your teenage years were. After the Party reaches for perspective on those years by putting them into a photobook of memories: the youthful rebellion of “Bad Catholics”; the post-college malaise of “Midwestern States”; the last-call rhapsodies of “The Bars.” To see your twenties slipping away is to see that reckless freedom slipping away, replaced by routine and responsibility. It’s to look back at those old photographs and miss the memories they depict; to say something like “I was such a looker in the old days.” But by the end of After the Party, Menzingers frontman Greg Barnett is singing love songs, thinking about promising the world to a girl. “After the party, it’s me and you” he sings on the title track, and suddenly, the idea of being a grown-up doesn’t seem so scary. It turns out that, with the right co-pilot in the front seat, driving away from the unpredictable wonder of youth can hold a lot of wonderment of its own.
104. The Fray - Scars & Stories

Just like Snow Patrol and Keane and all the other earnest mainstream soft rock bands that made their names snagging coda positions on episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill, The Fray were never going to be cool and were never going to be taken seriously. For listeners who don’t write them off completely, they are probably known as a singles band—a designation that is hard to argue with given a resume that includes “Over My Head (Cable Car),” “How to Save a Life,” “Look After You,” and “You Found Me.” But Scars & Stories is so much more than just another album with a couple rafter-shaking singles and a bunch of filler. Rather than spend their whole label-allocated budget on recording the album, the guys in The Fray earmarked a lot of the money for this album for world travel. The songs came naturally from the places the band visited and the people they met, and the result is a surprisingly searching and poignant album. Famously, U2 ascended to new heights in the late eighties when their travels outside of their native land—specifically to America—broadened their horizons, reshaped their identities, and pushed them to start asking new questions about politics, spirituality, and life itself. Scars & Stories is The Fray’s Joshua Tree moment, filled with songs wrought from genuine human struggling, suffering, and resilience. “1961” is a metaphor for families separated on either side of the Berlin Wall, while the driving opener “Heartbeat” is a song frontman Isaac Slade wrote after meeting a determined refugee woman in Rwanda. Even the closer-to-home songs are surprisingly deep, like “The Fighter,” which tells the story of a marriage through the lens of a boxing match, or “The Wind,” a song about guitarist Joe King’s divorce that yearns like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Of course, critics heard what they wanted in the songs: shallow, corporate, guitar-driven dad rock. And the band seemingly internalized those criticisms, losing trust in their own songwriting and teaming up with a bevy of faceless cowriters for the poppy, mostly-bad follow-up Helios. That album came out in 2014 and The Fray have been dormant ever since. The “what could have been?” narrative makes Scars & Stories both more wrenching and more special, a momentary triumph from a band that never got enough credit and ultimately folded under the cynicism surrounding guitar rock in the post-2000 world.

105. Brian Fallon - Painkillers

From 2008 to 2012, Brian Fallon had one of the hottest hot streaks we’ve seen from any artist this millennium. The ’59 Sound; American Slang; Elsie; Handwritten. Each of these albums is distinctly different and masterful in its own way—the work of an artist (and the artists around him) clearly bursting with inspiration and creativity. 2014’s Get Hurt—and the coinciding end of Fallon’s marriage—derailed the train. Painkillers is the sound of Fallon trying to start over, both in terms of his music and his personal life. The lyrics—especially on the aching, backward-looking closer “Open All Night”—directly reference the pain of attempting to build a new life after your old once gets smashed apart by a battering ram. The music is a retreat, away from Fallon’s patent Springsteen-style rock ‘n’ roll and toward a collision of classic pop influences (think ‘60s girl groups) and Americana. The record lacks the thematic cohesion of Fallon’s best work, and it could use a bit more full-band muscle. But what Painkillers does is sharpen the melody side of Fallon’s writing. From the beginning, we knew Brian Fallon was a unique lyricist—willing to pilfer and borrow from his idols, but also more than ready to wear his heart on his sleeve and tell his own story. His melody writing was less distinct, which is why records like The ’59 Sound can feel a bit same-y on early listens. But Painkillers is packed with huge hooks that stand with some of Fallon’s finest, from the folky stomp of “Smoke” to the throwback pop of “Nobody Wins.” Those songs start off Fallon’s second act with a huge amount of promise—even if he’d eclipse them just a few years later with the more fully-realized Sleepwalkers.

106. Donovan Woods - Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled

Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled is a good album that could have been a masterpiece. As released, it’s a very strong collection of songs with a handful of towering highlights. “On the Nights You Stay Home” is a melancholy ditty about how jealousy and suspicion can poison a relationship. “The First Time” is a wistful look back at first love (and first sex). “Between Cities” is a dizzying highway drive song about long-distance relationships. “Leaving Nashville” is maybe the greatest song ever written about the rapidly changing fortunes of the music industry. There are also two songs that Donovan Woods released as one-off singles in the year leading up to this album that didn’t make the record, and those songs are arguably his best work ever. The first, “Portland, Maine,” finds another long-distance relationship on its very last legs, sputtering and dying in its tracks as one member musters up the courage to put it out of its misery. That song ended up getting recorded by Tim McGraw and put on one of his albums, so at least there’s justification for its absence from this record. The same can’t be said for “That Hotel,” a piece of songwriting so heartbreaking, so vivid, and so ingeniously wrought that its status as a standalone single actually feels like injustice. “That Hotel” takes place in between the happiness of a love song and the shattered resignation of a breakup song. There’s been a fight and a separation, but the narrator is hopeful that things are going to work out. He’s staying in a run-down hotel, but he’s confident that within a few days, he’ll be moved back in with the girl he loves and everything will be alright. By the time Woods sings the last chorus—“And now I know it’s over/But back then I couldn’t tell/I got a one bedroom apartment now/And I miss that hotel”—you feel like you’ve weathered the entirety of a heartbreak at his side. The good news is that, in the era of digital music, it’s easy to actualize an alternate version of this album with both of those songs included. It’s that version of the album that I’m ranking here, with those two masterful, perfect songs.
107. Dierks Bentley - Riser

At the height of “bro country,” you would almost have expected an artist like Dierks Bentley to make an album of songs about backroads, pick-up trucks, and girls in cutoff jeans. While Bentley has always shown that he is a bit more thoughtful and traditionally-minded than his fellow pop-country superstars, he’s also shown a willingness to play the game. This album’s “Drunk on a Plain”—as well as other lesser songs like “Pretty Girls” and “Back Porch”—lean toward bro country clichés, and in the case of the former, earned Bentley one of his biggest hits. Listen to Riser as a whole, though, and it’s clear that those songs are compromises. Written and assembled shortly after Bentley’s father passed away, Riser is imbued with palpable grief, vivid memory, and deep gratitude. Bentley didn’t even write many of the songs: the shimmering “Say You Do” was penned by the guys from Old Dominion, while “Riser”—the track Bentley built the album around—was written by Travis Meadows and Steve Moakler, both artists you will find elsewhere on this list. But when Bentley sings these songs, it sounds like he wrote them, so thoroughly does he commit to the character and emotion of them. The ones he did write, meanwhile—“Here on Earth,” about fruitlessly seeking answers for questions about loss and grief; “I Hold On,” about clinging to the things that remind you of the people and memories that are gone; “Damn These Dreams,” about the painful separation that touring musicians feel when they leave their families behind for weeks or months at a time—are incredibly heartfelt and deeply nuanced. Throughout, Bentley shirks most of the hip hop and modern pop influences of the bro country era for other signifiers: whiskey-soaked southern rock on “Bourbon in Kentucky,” or All That You Can’t Leave Behind-era U2 on “Here on Earth.” And looking back, it’s amazing how many up-and-comers Bentley happily shared the stage with here. Some of the album’s biggest joys are hearing the familiar voices of future superstars on the bookends: Kacey Musgraves on “Bourbon in Kentucky” and Chris Stapleton on “Hurt Somebody.” Riser isn’t perfect, and its “compromise” songs get in the way of the flow and theme. But on the whole, it is an achingly beautiful and gorgeously melodic set of songs, made in the midst of one of country music’s worst movements.

108. Death Cab for Cutie - Thank You for Today

For a band like Death Cab for Cutie, it’s hard to sustain a career. It’s hard to keep a band going in the first place, under any circumstances—especially now that the industry has largely cratered and made it impossible for rock bands to find any traction. For a band like Death Cab, though, the challenge is aging gracefully after being something that a whole lot of people came to associate with teen and young adult angst. Ben Gibbard and co. aren’t the only people who have faced this challenge: Chris Carrabba and pretty much the entire early 2000s emo/pop-punk community have gone through it too. For Death Cab, though, the struggle might have been even more difficult, thanks to the fact that they existed somewhere between the heart-on-the-sleeve intensity of emo and the trendy-white-boy indie-rock of early Pitchfork. What makes Thank You for Today so terrific is how it ages gracefully by acknowledging the fact that aging has indeed occurred. Where Carrabba’s 2018 record (the good-not-great Dashboard Confessional comeback LP Crooked Shadows) seemed preoccupied with trying to sound young, Death Cab let the years be a character in these songs. The result is a nostalgic album about nostalgia: a record that sounds a whole lot like Transatlanticism but that is meta enough to recognize its own backward-looking theme. There’s a reason the album ends with “60 and Punk,” about an aging rock star wondering if he might have been better off not getting his big break all those years ago. Elsewhere, he looks back wistfully at his summer years and reflects on what his city looked like before gentrification changed its entire character. With time racing past, and with everything changing in the blink of an eye, maybe saying thank you for today is the best any of us can do.

109. Danielle Bradbery - I Don't Believe We've Met

I Don’t Believe We’ve Met is an album about being blindsided. It’s about those relationships where the crushes come on fast and hard, where everything moves fast, where the emotions feel like lightning, and where it all ends like a car crash: suddenly and destructively. While there’s nothing wrong with the sequencing—or the positioning of the crowd-pleasing, feel-good “Sway” as the album’s red-herring commencement—the story of the record actually seems to start on track 8. That song, called “Hello Summer,” finds the narrator crushing hard on a mysterious out-of-towner who just so happens to be spending a summer in her orbit. “I fell in love before he unpacked his bags,” Bradbery sings. You can guess at the twist: the fling doesn’t outlast the season, and by fall, she’s picking up the pieces of something that burned hot and then burned out. The rest of the album is the aftermath: chilly, moody, and surprisingly downbeat. Bradbery won The Voice as a country singer, but I Don’t Believe We’ve Met is closer to modern pop radio’s sad streak. Tracks like “Potential,” “What Are We Doing,” “Messy, and “Human Diary” are surprisingly insightful songs about reckoning with the failings of your relationships and then dealing with the blast radius when those relationships blow up in your face. Breakups hurt not just because you lose the person, but also for so many other reasons. They hurt because the happy memories become tinged with sadness. They hurt because everything you gave to that person—the stories, the secrets, the whispered truths you could never admit to anyone else—stay in their hands. They hurt because you lose their family, and your family loses them. This record grapples intelligently with all of that collateral damage, in a way so many shallower breakup albums never even think to attempt.

110. David Ramirez - We're Not Going Anywhere

“Where were you when we lost the twins?” Those are the first words David Ramirez utters on We’re Not Going Anywhere, a haunting and unsettling album written and recorded in the wake of Trump’s election. On first blush, you might assume the song—called “Twins”—is about parents losing their children. It actuality, it’s about September 11th and about the sense of fear and unease it created in our country that has never truly dissipated. “It was one of the first times I remember feeling unsafe and without control in a country that had previously made me feel otherwise,” Ramirez said of the song and 9/11 in general. We’re Not Going Anywhere is about those feelings coming rushing back 15 years later, renewed by the sharpest political divide that most of us have seen in our lifetimes. Ramirez—whose father is Hispanic—has gone on record about the kinship he feels with the minority populations that MAGA zealots view as “not belonging” in America. This record isn’t all about those feelings—“Watching from a Distance” is a yearning breakup song that wouldn’t sound out of place next to “The Boys of Summer” on a playlist, while “Eliza Jane” is an Elton John-style character sketch. But the brief moments of political tension, on songs like “Twins” or the anti-racist protest rock of “Stone Age,” give the album its heart-pounding urgency.
111. Matt Nathanson - Last of the Great Pretenders

Last of the Great Pretenders is Matt Nathanson’s identity crisis album. On earlier records, he’d been a guitar-slinging pop-rock troubadour, not far from the sonic stomping grounds John Mayer occupied on his first couple records. After this album, he would transition into full-on pop savant mode, throwing all his influences—from Prince to Kanye West to Bruce Springsteen—into a blender to create his own unique twist on modern pop. Here, he couldn’t quite decide which of these modes to occupy. Some of the songs—the best songs—reach back to what he did so well on Some Mad Hope and Modern Love. “Sunday New York Times” is a gorgeous acoustic heartbreaker that shares some DNA with classic James Taylor, while “Last Days of Summer in San Francisco” is arguably his best song—a beautiful, resplendent anthem that captures the bittersweet melancholy of late August. Elsewhere, though, you can hear Matt itching to venture outside of his comfort-zone, on thumping, beat-driven jams like “Earthquake Weather,” “Mission Bells,” and “Kill the Lights.” The resulting collection doesn’t really feel like a cohesive album, but that’s arguably to its advantage. Instead, Last of the Great Pretenders plays kind of like the mixtapes you make in college, when your connections with new people of different social groups, backgrounds, and interests sends your music taste scattering in all different directions. For Matt, all those musical ideas and influences end up as a patchwork quilt of sorts, painting his perception of the city of San Francisco over the course of a tumultuous year. 

112. John Mayer - The Search for Everything

Throughout his career, John Mayer’s public persona has often threatened to upend what is appealing about his music. On The Search for Everything, though, he let his own fame serve as the punching bag for the songs. Written and recorded in the wake of yet another breakup with yet another celebrity starlet—Katy Perry, this time—Search is the sound of a man grappling with his own romantic failures. “Can I make a relationship last?” “Will I ever find ‘The One’?” “Am I even capable of love?” “Why am I the way I am?” The Search for Everything might not actually be a search for everything, but it’s definitely a search for the answers to those questions. They’re big questions for anyone to ask, and they lead to an album of breakup songs that is sometimes wry and clever, sometimes agitated and nervy, and sometimes just downright crushing. The album was undone somewhat by a confusing release strategy, where Mayer promised 12 months’ worth of four-song EPs and then only delivered two of them before dropping the supposed “Part 1” full-length. We never got the part two, or the other 10 EPs, and Mayer has only released three songs since. Add a wacky, incoherent track sequencing and it’s not surprising that many wrote Search off as Mayer’s worst album. Strip away all that context, though, and this album has some of the sharpest, hardest-hitting material that Mayer ever wrote. From the beginning, one of Mayer’s biggest strengths as a songwriter was his willingness to be completely honest about his own emotional vulnerability. That’s what made songs like “No Such Thing” and “Why Georgia” scan as such relatable tales of young adulthood. It’s why “Stop This Train” is maybe my favorite song ever written about getting older. And it’s why he can spin a song like “In the Blood,” where he wonders whether he is genetically predisposed to fail at love. In an era where pop music seemed to get less honest and open, Mayer continued his oversharing tendencies—to brilliant effect.

113. Chad Perrone - Kaleidoscope 

Young songwriters revel in the pain of failed relationships. They take those heartbreaks and breakups and relish them, channeling them into songs that teenagers and twentysomethings can listen to and cry to and sing along to in the midst of their own romantic disasters. As you get older, though, the connotations of a breakup song change. It’s not just you and your crush and your feelings anymore. When you’re young, a breakup maybe means awkward moments in the halls at school, or difficult juggling acts for your mutual friends. When you get older, the stakes are higher. A breakup might mean a called-off engagement and a returned ring. It might mean divorce. It might mean figuring out what happens to your kids, or your pets, or the house you shared together. It probably means that your respective families feel the fallout of losing someone they had started to see as family. There is nothing to relish in these breakups: no grand catharsis in the songs they bring. Instead, it’s all a dull aching sadness. It’s a crisis of wondering what happened to all those years you gave to that person, and of worrying (at least fleetingly) that you might always be alone. Kaleidoscope traces all these difficult feelings into one of the most gutting and honest breakup albums of the past 10 years. It’s an album about seeing the future you had envisioned with another person completely dissolve in the blink of an eye. It’s about hoping that you might one day find someone who sees your flaws as something beautiful, rather than as a liability. It’s about trying to get back out there, only to find yourself stumbling home at the end of the night, feeling as dejected and defeated as ever. Most of all, it’s about loneliness, and about how heartbreak in your 30s or 40s looks a hell of a lot different from heartbreak in your teens. At 16, a broken heart hurts, but it also feels like a badge of honor. At 36, it can only make you wonder if happiness might not be in the cards for you.

114. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

Was it Americana? Was it Bruce Springsteen-style rock ‘n’ roll? Was it guitar hero pyrotechnics? Lost in the Dream, the breakout album from The War on Drugs, offers all these parallels and more. It is a thrilling, classic-leaning rock ‘n’ roll album, plucked from the middle of an era where listeners and critics seemed ready to rebel against the classic rock canon of old. Somehow, Lost in the Dream still found enough of an audience to become one of the decade’s 10 or 20 most beloved albums. And frankly, it’s an album that is hard not to love. The keys glow like molten lava on the grandiose opener “Under the Pressure.” “Red Eyes” sounds like Springsteen’s ’69 Chevy on nitrous oxide. “Eyes to the Wind” plays like a Segar ballad transposed into a dreamscape. And “In Reverse” feels like an aimless wander out on the neighborhood streets of your hometown, way past dark on a summer night. The way Lost in the Dream hits that balancing act—between the past and now, between familiar and a little bizarre, between predictable and unpredictable—makes it one of the decade’s most thoroughly beguiling musical achievements.

115. Maddie and Tae - Start Here

Maddie and Tae burst onto the scene with maybe the most prescient, subversive country hit of the decade. “Girl in a Country Song” skewered the bro country fad so thoroughly and savagely that it may have singlehandedly killed it. It directly referenced songs by artists ranging from Thomas Rhett to Tyler Farr to Blake Shelton to Jason Aldean to the kings of bro country themselves, Florida Georgia Line. It was bold for a duo of two young, largely unknown female songwriters to take shots at established superstars, but it paid off. “Girl in a Country Song” hit the top of the country airplay charts, and it largely forced the implicated artists to reform—or at least tone down their blatantly sexist depictions of female characters. It also paved the way to Start Here, one of the most confident and assured mainstream country debuts of the last 10 years. The barbed wit of “Girl in a Country Song” manifests itself a few other times on the record, like on “Sierra,” where they try to avoid saying what they really think about a bully from their high school days; or “Shut up and Fish,” about a date with a boy who only speaks in pickup lines (until he ends up dumped in the water). But Maddie and Tae’s real strong suit on this album proves to be a more earnest type of country music. The bookends, “Waitin’ on a Plane” and “Downside of Growing Up,” are both poignant coming-of-age stories; “Right Here, Right Now” and “No Place Like You” are soaring evocations of young love that recall Taylor Swift’s Fearless; and “After the Storm Blows Through” is an incredibly lovely pledge of undying friendship, made all the more effective by its tight-knit, Dixie Chicks-esque harmonies. Beyond “Girl in a Country Song,” the album largely went overlooked and Maddie and Tae ended up spending the next four years fighting to get their second album released. When you listen back to the songs, it’s remarkable that Start Here wasn’t a juggernaut. Every single song is a hit.

116. Kelsea Ballerini - The First Time

When Taylor Swift officially ditched country music in 2014, there was an opening for a new pop-country crossover starlet. The First Time is Kelsea Ballerini’s application for the job, and it’s a pretty damn good one. The record sent three singles—“Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs,” and “Peter Pan”—to the top of the country airplay chart, an unprecedented feat for a female country artist in the current country music climate. Listen to each of those songs once and you’ll know exactly why they broke through, despite country radio’s head-scratching unwillingness to play women. The hooks are massive, Ballerini’s charisma is off the charts, and the pop element of the “pop-country” mix is very, very heavy. The criticism, from purists, is that Ballerini is not and never has been a country artist. Certainly, The First Time makes no effort to hide its pop signifiers, whether they’re in the form of sticky melodies or very modern instrumentation. As a writer, though, Ballerini couldn’t be further from what pop is right now. She’s an open-hearted, optimistic, unabashedly reflective storyteller with an eye for crucial details. Sure, this album blew up because songs like “Dibs” are catchier than literally anything pop radio played in the past 10 years. But Ballerini’s clearest talent is her ability to bring you fully into her world. You’re there waiting next to her in “The First Time” as she scans the driveway for a boy who will never show up. You’re there in “Secondhand Smoke” as she lies awake in bed listening to her parents scream at each other downstairs. And you’re there in “Underage” as she celebrates the warm comforts and fleeting beauty of teenage freedom. Who cares if Kelsea Ballerini sounds like a pop star? She’s country where it counts the most: her heart.

117. Josh Ritter - Sermon on the Rocks

Josh Ritter has always been an exemplary songwriter and a spectacular lyricist. For most of his catalog, he’s used those skills to make very pretty, thematically dense folk music. For whatever reason, though, in 2015, he tossed out the rulebook and got weird. The result, Sermon on the Rocks, is the most singular album of his career. At its core, Sermon is still a folk album. It’s just that this time, Ritter’s palette is a bit more extensive. He described the album as “messianic oracular honky-tonk,” but that description only hits on some of the elements at play here—namely, the religious satire and the barn-burning Nashville sound that run through much of the album. But there are also flickers of electronic production and hip-hop rhythms here, brushing up against Springsteen-esque anthems and old country-western cowboy mythos. On paper, throwing all those things together on one album sounds like a wild experiment—one sure to be exciting but unlikely to yield apexes on the level of previous Ritter triumphs like “Girl in the War” or “Thin Blue Flame.” But Sermon on the Rocks, for all its satire and wit, is also a deeply poignant album about growing up in rural middle America. Songs like “Homecoming” and “Where the Night Goes” are beautiful, intimate snapshots of young love on dirt roads, in fast cars, or at secluded makeout destinations. You can grow up and leave those places behind, but the awakenings that happen in these songs are the kinds of things that stay burned in your mind and on your soul for life. By making those moments sound like a million different genres at once, Sermon on the Rocks somehow captures their heart-thumping excitement as if it was happening to you right now.

118. Josh Kelley - New Lane Road

Not many albums I’ve heard exude humility and grace the way that New Lane Road does. Josh Kelley is a fascinating artist, in that he’s had all sorts of brushes with celebrity and success. He had a few minor hits in the early 2000s, he’s married to Katherine Heigl, and his brother is Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum fame. Despite all this, he’s still somehow stayed largely under the radar. It’s the kind of narrative that could break a singer-songwriter down, waiting for his own art to catch on in the way that his brother’s did or his wife’s did. On New Lane Road, though, Kelley sounds just about as perfectly content as I’ve ever heard someone sound on record. This is an album about cherishing the small, simple, beautiful things in your life: your kids; the songs you love from when you were young; the land you own and the home you live in with your family; the relationship that isn’t perfect, that hits bumps every once in awhile, but that keeps on rolling regardless. Kelley captures these small-scale ideas beautifully, wrapping them in a subtle throwback texture that evokes the country, folk, and soft rock of the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. It’s a classic-sounding piece of work, made all the more potent by the fact that Kelley sings his whole heart and soul into the songs.
119. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

All of Helplessness Blues is terrific, building on the pastoral folk tapestries of Fleet Foxes’ debut in confident and interesting ways. The cacophonous war of sound at the end of “The Shrine/The Argument” is one example of the band’s bigger, more audacious direction here, as is the Arcade Fire-sized punch of closer “Grown Ocean,” which seems tailor-made to ring through arenas. But the title track is the masterpiece—a track that has established itself as, I think, one of the most definitive songs of the past 10 years. Few tracks from this decade better capture the millennial struggle: the yearning to do something great; the apathy that comes with feeling insignificant; the disillusionment of learning that, no, you aren’t as unique or special as your parents or teachers told you growing up. The song taps into a generation’s intense struggle to prove itself and find its place in the world. It makes you want to say “fuck you” to everyone and everything and push on regardless. In a year where I suffered a crushing failure—at the hands of “men who move only in dimly lit halls and determine my future for me”—this song and its bristling, inspirational message is something I needed more than I think I ever realized back then.

120. Yellowcard - When You're Through Thinking, Say Yes

Yellowcard were always a summer band. For those of us who grew up or came of age listening to Ocean Avenue and Paper Walls, they were the sound of beaches and freedom and full sunlit days without a care in the world. The first time I heard When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, though, Michigan was still locked in what felt like an endless winter. I had a month left on the clock for my sophomore year of college, and I felt like I’d never needed a summer vacation more. Nearing the end of an awful semester, feeling the strain of a long-distance relationship, and ready to melt back into the embrace of home, When You’re Through Thinking… sounded incredibly poignant to me. It was a reminder that, no matter what—no matter how many bad days I had or how dreadful my grades got or how miserable I was with my job as an RA—summer was out there. It was a concrete thing that existed, that had come before and would come again. I remember, vividly, trying to will the summer into being a little sooner, driving around in my little Honda Civic in legitimate snowstorms blasting “With You Around” and “Soundtrack.” The cognitive dissonance was incredible, but it somehow only made these songs sound better. That’s the funny thing about summer songs: when you listen to them in summer, you take them for granted. They sound like throwaways, like background music to be played at parties, or to be half-drowned-out by the roar of an open window in a speeding car. But when you hear them as I did that spring, when I was yearning so hard for the sense of freedom and youth they captured, they pierced me right to my soul. One of my top 10 favorite music memories from this decade was climbing into the car when the end of the school year finally wound around—when all my classes and exams and job obligations were finished and I could set out toward home at last. I made a point of playing this album first, and as “The Sound of You and Me” kicked in to start the journey, I felt an immense weight off my shoulders. “I’ve never been more ready to move on,” Ryan Key sang. I can count on one hand the lyrics that have felt more apt for specific moments of my life.

121. The Tower & The Fool - How Long

How Long is one of the great forgotten records of the past 10 years. Released in the spring of 2012 by Run for Cover Records—a label known for their role in the emo revival—How Long was a little too early to capitalize on the revival trend. It might also not have been the right kind of record to capitalize on it. The Tower & The Fool are neither an emo band, nor do they exist in the adjacent genre of pop-punk. How Long is a country-tinged rock record that has more in common with '90s bands like Counting Crows, Whiskeytown, or Old 97s than with any of their labelmates. In a different decade, a song like “Broken”—a bittersweet road trip anthem about “chasing down Kerouac’s American dream”—might have been a hit. In this one, it went sadly overlooked. For those who heard it, though, How Long packed a punch. You can probably count on one hand the break-up albums from the past 10 years that are more potent than this one. This album asks: what does it take to get over someone who you thought was going to be there forever? The title track seems to offer an answer, that “only time will heal your pain.” But what if time doesn’t help? What if your knees wear through the jeans she bought you and you’re still not over it? What if a whole year goes by without even seeing her face and you’re still wandering down the street where you used to live with her, wondering where everything went so wrong? How Long is an album about those broken hearts that don’t mend quickly—if ever. For anyone who was having trouble getting over an ex this decade, I can’t imagine there was a better soundtrack for a solitary highway drive than this one.

122. Go Radio - Close the Distance

“We’ve both got way too much ahead/To worry about what we’ve left behind.” Those words, the first time I heard them, stopped me in my tracks. They come from the song “Collide,” the first single from Go Radio’s Close the Distance. I first heard them at the tail end of the summer of 2012, which, for both my girlfriend and for me, was a big time of change and transition. She’d graduated from college the previous spring and was preparing to move six hours away from our hometown to start her first job. I was heading back to college for my last year. Saying goodbye to home at the end of that summer felt more final than the ones that had preceded all my other college years. Those words from “Collide” seemed to perfectly capture the bittersweet ache of the moment that we both left, headed for different destinations. We were leaving friends and family and a place that had brought us together. But we were hopefully leaving it for big opportunities, and for a future—preferably together—that would be even grander than our past. Throughout the fall and the rest of the school year, I leaned on “Collide” and the rest of Close the Distance a lot. More than maybe any other album that came out while I was in college, this one seemed to tell the narrative of my love story. It was and is one of the greatest albums ever made about long-distance relationships, because it conveys both the pain of leaving and the euphoric rush of being reunited. “Baltimore” is the night before a departure, trying to stop time to be with the person you love. And “Close the Distance” is about the moment when the distance finally disappears, when you and that person can be together for days or weeks or months or years, rather than just a few hours on a stolen Saturday or Sunday. As my senior year drew to a close, I remember spending a lot of time listening to this album on drives back and forth to Chicago, visiting the girl I loved. The title track got my heart racing, because I knew that our three years of long distance were almost up. No matter what happened next—regardless of whether I got a job or figured out what I wanted to do with my life—we would at least be together. Looking back now, six years removed from college and five since that girl and I told each other “I do,” I still can’t go back to this record without feeling that same rush of feelings. As our wedding approached, these songs were the ones I kept going back to, if only because they seemed to encapsulate everything we’d committed to and everything we’d built together. It’s still an extremely important record to me for those reasons.

123. Frank Turner - Tape Deck Heart

I always loved that title: Tape Deck Heart. The lyric that it comes from—“You will always be a part/Of my patched up, patchwork, taped up, tape deck heart,” from the song “Tell Tale Signs”—sheds some light on what it means. Like a tape deck, the heart is repeatedly replaying and recording and re-recording moments on top of each other. People waltz in and out of our lives. We fall in and out of love with them, or forge friendships and bonds with them that may later crumble away to nothing. It’s not unlike a cassette tape being taped over, losing the traces of the songs that used to mean something but no longer do. Tape Deck Heart turns that powerful metaphor into a collection of songs about heartbreak and recovery. “Fuck you Hollywood, for teaching us that love was free and easy,” Turner sings on “Good & Gone,” a magnificent song about how anger and pain and sadness are often the same damn thing in the wake of a broken relationship. It’s about those moments of low, low heartbreak when you’d rather record over the person who is gone, rather than feel all the hurt of their absence. But then you get a song like “Polaroid Picture,” about the temporary nature of the things in our lives, and you remember that our memories are sometimes the only things we have. “We won’t all be here this time next year/So while you can take a picture of us,” Turner sings. That’s the meaning of the album that I relate to most strongly, because Tape Deck Heart was in heavy rotation during my very last weeks of college. I knew it was a break-up record, but to me, it seemed to say something more powerful about closing out important chapters of your life and embracing new ones. There’s a line in “The Fisher King Blues” about wondering “how the air tastes when you’re really free.” I thought about that lyric a lot in the weeks after I graduated, as I tried to find my footing in the real world. Did I want the freedom? Or did I want the sheltered innocence that I had left behind the day I drove away from college? I couldn’t quite decide, but I think my own tape deck heart probably wanted both.
124. The Night Game - The Night Game

The Night Game deserves a coming-of-age movie worthy of its wistful summertime jams. A lot of artists spent the better part of the last decade—especially the later part—chasing after the 1980s aesthetic in their music. Few artists captured it as well as Martin Johnson did here. Johnson, formerly of Boys Like Girls fame, has always excelled at writing songs that encapsulate the yearning and possibility of the teenage experience. When he sang about a girl whose voice was the soundtrack of his summer in “Thunder,” those feelings felt like they were happening right now. The Night Game is different. It’s a record about looking back 20 or 30 years after the fact and having all those memories hit you like a gale-force wind. On anthems like “The Outfield” and “Once in a Lifetime,” you can feel a warm fondness for those days gone by radiating through the propulsive choruses. Elsewhere, though, regret and thoughts of what might have been linger in the songs. On “Do You Think About Us,” Johnson sings about the sliding doors: the moments in your life when you could have gone through one side of the door but went through the other instead. How different would your life be if you had made another choice? And would your high school crush or your one-who-got-away be the person you ended up spending your life with? It’s natural to have thoughts like that, especially late at night in the summer when the hot, muggy weather and songs like these ones spur vivid memories from many years ago. Are the people from your past out having the same thoughts you are? It’s hard to know for sure, but albums like The Night Game are comforting because they show just how common those nostalgic trips are.

125. Dawes - Passwords

It took me a long time to get a handle on Passwords. For most Dawes fans, the head-scratching moment was We’re All Gonna Die, a zany, studio-abetted album where our favorite band of Laurel Canyon folkies blew up the blueprint they’d been following for four albums straight. By all accounts, Passwords should have felt more familiar. It was produced by Jonathan Wilson, who also produced the first two Dawes albums, and it definitely strikes more than a few “return to form” trademarks. For whatever reason, though, this album confounded me. It felt too long, too somber, too midtempo. Taylor Goldsmith still writes in character vignettes, but here, they’re often set against the uneasy backdrop of the Trump political era. It’s not always a comfortable place to be—especially on jittery cuts like “Telescope,” which tells the entire life story of a guy who probably became a MAGA conspiracy theorist. But Passwords, if you peel away the layers, is a nuanced and deeply empathetic album about reaching for understanding and measured dialogue—even in a time when so many people are calling for more extreme measures. Those messages might not resonate with everyone, but when Goldsmith delves into his own personal life toward the end of the record—really a first in his songwriting—you start to find the truth in a lyric from “Crack the Case”: “It’s really hard to hate anyone when you know what they’ve been through.” When Goldsmith sings about his life of lonely, melancholy sadness—masked with wry humor and songs and miles on the road—he reminds us that everyone is living out a more complex narrative than we can ever understand through social media or minimal interactions. Maybe if we all decide to coexist, we can live happier lives. It would be nice, because as Goldsmith notes at the end of this album, “the time flies either way.”

126. Turnpike Troubadours - A Long Way from Your Heart 

Country music had a lot of songwriting heroes this decade. The Americana segment loved Jason Isbell. The Nashville scene admired Chris Stapleton and Lori McKenna. The left-of-the-dial listeners yearning for something a little weirder gravitated toward Sturgill Simpson. Amidst the country purists, though, I’m not sure anyone was more beloved than Evan Felker from Turnpike Troubadours. A Long Way from Your Heart makes it immensely clear why that was. It’s a record that doesn’t seem all that special the first time you listen to it. Sure, it sounds nice enough: Turnpike Troubadours are (were?) a legendarily tight live band, and their talents are well on display here—especially fiddle player Kyle Nix. But the more time you spend with this record and delve into the lyrics, the more it grips you. The melodies find ways to burrow into your soul, and the lyrics absolutely get under your skin. I could fill an entire blurb about this album just by quoting little lines that I love: lines that are tender or resilient or wryly funny or achingly sad. But I suppose I’ll just choose one verse from one song that I think encapsulates precisely why Evan Felker spent this decade admired by so many country fans: “This old world will spin again/Play me like a violin/Knock all of the wind out of my chest/Well I don't mind you playin' me/Just keep it in a major key/Now you're waking up and I can get some rest.” Sometimes, you find yourself just waiting for a specific verse in a specific song to come around because you love the words so much. With Turnpike Troubadours on A Long Way from Your Heart, that’s every verse, on every song.

127. Will Hoge - Small Town Dreams

On Small Town Dreams, Will Hoge set out to answer a single question: could he be a country superstar if he really tried to be? By this point, Hoge had scored a number one hit and a very prominent feature on a heavily-syndicated Chevy ad campaign. Sure, his number one hit had been performed by a different artist (Eli Young Band, taking on Hoge’s 2009 classic “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”) and his ad campaign song (called “Strong”) had never translated into airplay or big-time recognition. But there was no doubt that Hoge’s songs could play to the masses if the circumstances were right. By all accounts, Small Town Dreams should have been a mainstream country juggernaut. Songs like “Better Than You” and “Middle of America” are catchier than anything Luke Combs smashed the charts with two years later. “Growing up Around Here” is a way smarter hometown hymn than Zac Brown Band’s gargantuan “Homegrown” from the same year. And “Just up the Road” is up there with Stapleton among the most well-sung country songs of the decade. Regardless, Small Town Dreams failed to take off. Part of it was a classic case of David getting crushed by Goliath. Hoge tells a story of him and his band landing a big promotional slot from a radio conglomerate, only to lose it to a mainstream artist with higher-up connections. The other part was that Hoge maybe didn’t quite go far enough to play the Nashville establishment game. While he teamed up with Nashville songwriters and ramped up the hooks, Small Town Dreams still retains some grit and guile—in tear-jerking story songs like “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” and “Little Bitty Dreams,” or in rockers like “Til I Do It Again,” a song that certainly would have been a smash if Brothers Osborne had cut it for their debut album a year later. It’s too bad for Hoge that he never got the big-time dream he’d been chasing for years, but for the rest of us, Small Town Dreams remains a rare treat: a country album with the hooks and muscle of the Nashville machine, but the heart and hustle of the underground.

128. fun. - Some Nights

Looking back now, it’s almost impossible to believe that fun. ever got as big as they did. Aim & Ignite, the band’s 2009 debut, was essentially a cult classic. In the pop-punk/emo scene, that album rode the goodwill for singer Nate Ruess’s former band The Format to huge amounts of love and acclaim. But our corner of the music world often embraced artists that no one else ever heard of or appreciated—especially before the so-called emo revival that arrived in the middle of this decade. Most of us never would have predicted that fun. would even ever land even a minor hit, let alone become a household name. That first album was weird, with songs that blurred the lines between pop music, Disney film scores, opera, classic rock, and a circus. But “We Are Young” captured the zeitgeist, landing on Glee (another 2010s relic that it’s hard to believe was ever as popular as it was), scoring a Superbowl commercial feature, and resonating deeply with every person who happened to find themselves in high school or college at the time it hit the radio waves. It was odd, to hear a band I loved this much become a “thing” with so many of my friends. I remember hearing my roommate singing along with “Some Nights” through the bedroom wall we shared, or my choir buddies jamming “Carry On” on our spring tour. I certainly remember, during one of the last Friday nights of the spring semester, hearing “We Are Young” come on the radio when me and all my friends were one drink away from needing to be carried home. Briefly, fun. were a household name, and it seemed like they were poised to become the biggest rock band on the planet—an eventual arena rock draw and a probable Superbowl Halftime Show act. Instead, these guys never made another album together. Seven years later, that fate feels both melancholic and like the perfect microcosm of just how fleeting pop stardom seemed in the 2010s. But when I listen back through Some Nights, removed from the overhype and overplay that set in during the spring of 2012, nothing about these songs seems fleeting: “Some Nights” is still gargantuan and so, so hopeful; “Stars” still over-reaches for pop maximalism in a way that probably reshaped the course of pop music more than we realize; and “Out on the Town” still sounds like the perfect callback to old fun.—a little less famous and a little more naïve. Most of all, “We Are Young” still sounds like those stolen moments with friends at 2 a.m. on some spare Friday night, thinking we had all the time in the world when we really had nothing but the music and the night.

129. Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland 

Counting Crows were one of the most formative bands in my music development. I first heard them in childhood, when August & Everything After—“Mr. Jones” in particular—struck a chord. But I didn’t fall in love with them until I was 13, when I picked up their greatest hits collection and let it become the soundtrack to a dark, cold, solitary winter. Then, after that, the Crows effectively disappeared. It would be four long years until 2008’s Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, and then six-plus years until Somewhere Under Wonderland. By the time Wonderland arrived, I was no longer that same awkward adolescent boy, hiding away in his bedroom for hours at a time and listening to “Anna Begins” and “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” while working on art projects. Somewhere Under Wonderland arrived a month and a half after I got married. My wife and I were preparing to move back to our home state of Michigan—from the Chicago area, where we’d spent a couple years—and this album came to be the sound of my goodbye to that place. I loved it at first, won over by its freewheeling arrangements and loose, anything-can-happen musicality. I turned on it later, longing for the sharper hooks and tighter lyrical work of Hard Candy and even Saturday Nights. I’m somewhere in between those two extremes now. On the one hand, Somewhere Under Wonderland comes closer than any other Crows album to capturing the band’s improvisatory live show. On the other hand, it lacks some of the emotional punch that had always given the older Crows albums their gravitational pull. Still, there’s a lot to love here, from the way “Palisades Park” builds an entire universe in a song (it’s reminiscent of “Incident on 57th Street” or “New York City Serenade, from Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle), to the perfect poetic beauty of “Possibility Days.” As the sun set on my time in Illinois, and as I wound my way closer to home, the lyrics of that song hit me hard. “The worst part of a good day/Is hearing yourself say goodbye to one more possibility day,” Duritz sang. It was an encapsulation of what I felt as I closed the door on one chapter and everything it might have been, to start another with endless possibilities of its own. 

130. Bleachers - Strange Desire

Jack Antonoff spent the decade trying to remake pop music in his own image. He largely succeeded. First with fun. and later with songwriting and production duties for the likes of Taylor Swift and Lorde, Antonoff was semi-sneakily one of the most influential people in the music world for the last 10 years. But his apex came here, on his first album under the Bleachers moniker. Strange Desire was one of the many albums from this decade that earned comparisons to John Hughes movie soundtracks. It was a decade where pop was enamored with the sounds of the ‘80s, and Antonoff was just one of the many artists playing in that sandbox. But something about Strange Desire feels more worthy of that comparison than any other album that received it—which could also help explain why multiple songs from this album actually did end up in a Hughes-y teen movie called Love, Simon. There’s a widescreen sugar rush fantasia to songs like “Wild Heart,” “I Wanna Get Better,” and especially “Rollercoaster” that immediately feels cinematic. I remember hearing “Rollercoaster” for the first time and just wanting to find a deserted road somewhere, where I could drive really fast and play that song really loud. But for all of its throwback glory and youthful innocence, Strange Desire also packs a weighty emotional punch. The first song Antonoff wrote for the project was “Like a River Runs,” which is about his sister who died of brain cancer when he was 18. In the song, he falls asleep and dreams of her, so vividly that he feels like she’s still there with him. But when he wakes up, it’s like losing her all over again. “I get the feeling that you’re somewhere close,” he sings, late in the song. It’s a feeling we’ve all had before and will have again, because, as Dumbledore asks in Harry Potter: “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us?” Of course they don’t. 

131. Carly Rae Jepsen - E.MO.TION

Somewhere along the line, Carly Rae Jepsen became the critical darling pop star. Leaving aside “Call Me Maybe,” one of the decade’s most ubiquitous mainstream hits, Jepsen has never been a superstar. In the eyes of critics (and fans) though, she’s maybe the greatest active artist in pop music. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, but every time I push play on E.MO.TION, I at least see the argument. Anchored by “Run Away with Me,” a yearning, horn-assisted, dopamine rush of a love song, this album soars like an '80s teen movie romance. One of my very favorite music memories of the decade was listening to this album in the car when driving home from a concert late at night in December 2015. My car was the only one on the road, and as I cruised and careened along the overpasses and interchanges that pass through the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, surrounded by bright streetlights and tall buildings, these songs just sounded so epic. Songs like “I Really Like You, ”“Making the Most of the Night,” and “Let’s Get Lost” made me feel like I was traveling at light speed, even if I was barely clocking over the posted speed limit of 70. That’s the effect that great pop music should have: it should amplify everything and make you feel like you are living some larger-than-life version of your own existence. That’s part of what makes E.MO.TION special, but it’s not all of it. The other piece is that, on these songs, Carly Rae manages to sound more like the girl next door than like a pop superstar. Compared to the Taylor Swifts and Beyonces and Ariana Grandes, she sounds friendly and approachable in a way that makes her music more relatable. You can imagine her commiserating with you about boy problems, or knocking on your window in the middle of the night and inviting you to run away with her on some misfit adventure that will surely end up the stuff of teen movie myth. It’s a unique talent, and it’s part of what makes E.MO.TION so singular, so thrilling, and so beloved among the people who fell under its spell.

132. Tyler Hilton - City on Fire

Tyler Hilton is one of those artists that doesn’t really belong to any one genre. He came up as an early 2000s teen pop heartthrob, but he’s always had other aspects to his sound: folk, country, and Americana over here; a little bit of southern rock over there; swooning ‘80s pop somewhere in the middle. He has had, frankly, the most bizarre journey of any artist I follow, with his biggest claims to fame including a guest spot in Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops on My Guitar” video, a lengthy recurring role on the teen soap opera One Tree Hill, and a brief cameo as Elvis Presley in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. City on Fire is maybe the first album in Hilton’s catalog that captures his full idiosyncratic, versatile capability as an artist. The title track and “Anywhere I Run” are flammable country songs. “When the Night Moves” and “The Way She Loves You” are sweeping, romantic, ‘80s style soft-rock jams. “How Long ‘Til I Lose You” is a pure pop confection. “I Don’t Want to Be Scared” and “When I See You, I See Home” are gorgeous, aching folk songs. There are even oddities like “Seasons Change” (a catchy little reggae-influenced ditty) and “Find Me One” (a tongue-in-cheek honky-tonk one-take). And then the album ends with a five-minute, super earnest acoustic cover of Rihanna’s “Stay.” It’s a mess of an album, just like Hilton’s career has been a chaotic thing to follow, full of hiatuses and chameleonic sonic shifts. But it’s also an impressive display of songcraft, making up for what it lacks in cohesion with sharp hooks and a metric ton of charisma.

133. Jon Latham - Lifers

Legend has it that Jon Latham’s very first word was “Bruce”—as in Bruce Springsteen. That’s not entirely unsurprising after you hear Lifers, an album whose heart beats with the spirit of classic rock ‘n’ roll. Latham himself sounds more like Petty than Bruce, but his biggest impulses—long, detailed story songs; openhearted nostalgia; unwavering earnestness—were surely learned from The Boss. Latham proves on track one that he can use these skills to craft bar-band rock ‘n’ roll that strikes to the heart of the generational struggle of disenfranchised millennials. But he spends most of this album in much quieter territory, investigating Springsteen standby topics like father-son relationships (“Old Man and the Sea”) and the lifelong, blood-deep bonds of friendship (“Lifers”) with detail and empathy. Latham’s biggest talent is the slowburn build: five of these eight songs are longer than five minutes, and most of those are ballads. He uses that time wisely, constructing songs that feel as vast as a wide-open countryside, with emotions as deep as a well. Case-in-point is “Yearbook Signatures,” possibly the most openly nostalgic song I have ever heard. It’s a song about growing up to the soundtrack of rock ‘n’ roll, and about how those songs sometimes end up being the only things you have left of high school, after those friends slip out of touch and those times turn into distant memories. “Lord ain’t if funny what rock ‘n’ roll can do,” Latham sings. As someone who hears his favorite songs from high school far more than he sees his best friends from high school, those words hit hard.

134. Eric Church - Mr. Misunderstood

Mr. Misunderstood is the Eric Church album that comes the closest to encapsulating everything that is great about Eric Church. According to the vast majority of his fans, Church is one of those artists who you just can’t really get until you’ve seen him live. There are so many different sides of him: Eric Church the singer-songwriter; Eric Church the mainstream country star; Eric Church the arena rock star; Eric Church the hardest working man in (country music) show business. I wrote a piece a few years ago about how Eric Church is “the heir apparent to Bruce Springsteen,” at least in a live environment. His marathon shows and do-or-die commitment to the act of entertaining make him a truly generational live music figure, in any genre. All of that is hard to convey in the course of a 40-minute album. Chief was the mainstream country album; The Outsiders was the big arena play; Desperate Man was the singer-songwriter album. None of those records show off all his sides, which strands them in “good not great” territory. (Chief is on this list, thanks in large part to the presence of the song “Springsteen”; the other two just missed.) Mr. Misunderstood almost does the trick. “Record Year” was a number one country hit; “Kill a Word,” an anti-bullying screed that took on extra weight in the Trump era, was one of the decade’s smartest, hardest-hitting pieces of songwriting; and songs like the title track and “Knives of New Orleans” were massive enough to shout from the cheap seats. If I had to guess, I’d say Church’s masterpiece is still in front of him. For now, though, Mr. Misunderstood is a pretty solid stand-in.

135. John Mayer - Paradise Valley

Loosely, Paradise Valley is a concept album on two fronts. On the one hand, it was intended as Mayer’s “country music album,” to follow the folk-rock lean of the previous year’s Born and Raised. Several of the songs are as twangy as Mayer would ever take his sound, like the starry-eyed rhinestone cowboy lullaby of “Badge and Gun” or the pure honky-tonk kick of “You’re No One Til Someone Lets You Down.” On the other hand, Paradise Valley is structured to tell the arc of one entire summer. The opener, another twangy gem called “Wildfire,” conjures up visions of a raucous early-summer party under the stars and a big full moon. The closer, a wistful beauty called “On the Way Back Home,” finds the protagonist leaving a summer town after Labor Day, as the beach closes down and the ghost of a summer fling disappears on the breeze. The album isn’t always successful at adhering to either of those concepts. There’s an obvious pop play in “Who You Love,” featuring Mayer’s then-girlfriend Katy Perry, and an even more obvious cred-grab with a late-album interlude (also called “Wildfire”) that features a wildly out-of-place Frank Ocean. Paradise Valley may have been better if Mayer had committed himself fully to making a country album, or to making a concept album about a whirlwind summertime romance, or to doing both. At its best, though, the album transcends its own flaws. “Dear Marie” is a thoughtful song about an old flame that morphs from a pleasant folk ditty into an arena-worthy rave-up. And the aforementioned “On the Way Back Home” is such a strong and fitting finale that it makes the album feel more cohesive than it is. “Life ain’t short but it sure is small/You get forever and nobody at all/It don’t come often and it don’t stay long.” The things that make life worth living—love, good times, friendship—don’t necessarily last forever. Just like a perfect summer, they can be temporary or even fleeting. “On the Way Back Home” captures all of that. It captures the melancholy sadness of leaving something wonderful behind; it captures the fond grin as you drive away, remembering all the good things that will now be a part of your memory forever. Mayer may have made better albums, but he hasn’t written many better songs.

136. Will Hoge - Anchors

Anchors is a back-to-basics record for Will Hoge. He spent the better part of this decade pushing toward a more mainstream country sound, emboldened by the success his song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” had enjoyed in the hands of the Eli Young Band. On Anchors, he drops the charade and goes back to writing songs more like he did before: raw, rootsy rock ‘n’ roll with all the dirt, dust, blood, sweat, and tears left intact. It’s not my favorite record of his, but there’s something about it that feels so honest and unvarnished. There’s a kind of rebellious hope in these songs that I always loved. The characters hitting the highway for greater things maybe don’t have all the naïve optimism of Springsteen’s heroes in “Born to Run.” They know they are getting older and that their dreams might be out of reach. They know that they might end up turning around and retreating back home as broken, dejected failures. They know their relationships might pick up a little bit of rust from time to time. But their hearts are still beating, and their radios are still blaring, and their souls still feel the promise of sweeter days ahead—even if those sweeter days are intermingled with some tough times and cold nights. When Hoge sings a song about being 17 and falling in love for the first time, he does it like Seger singing “Night Moves,” because he knows that summer songs and young love and hymns of possibility still have resonance. They always will, and this album will too.

137. Brandy Clark - Big Day in a Small Town

I once read that the ultimate benchmark for a classic album was world building. If an album could wrap you up and transport you to its own little ether universe—a spot with a clear sense of place and character—then it was well on its way to classic status. Classic or not, Big Day in a Small Town undoubtedly fits that particular bill. The cover itself features a map of a small town, and the vinyl version of the album even includes vocal narration between tracks that is intended to shore up the concept. Whether you have those elements or not, though, this album encapsulates a lot of what it means to live in a nowhere, dot-on-the-map town. It’s a place where being crowned Homecoming Queen in high school can feasibly be your biggest life accomplishment, or where the gossip is so loud (and the geographical radius so small) that everyone hears about an affair or a teenage pregnancy within 15 minutes flat. But it’s also a place where single mothers pine for love, where siblings mourn their late parents with drinks and tears, and where heartbreaks are so potent that they might lead someone to proclaim that “love can go to hell in a broken heartbeat minute.” It’s a sad, quirky, vivid place, and Brandy Clark’s ability to paint the songs with equal parts empathy and humor makes that world come alive.

138. Brandon Flowers - Flamingo

The second time Brandon Flowers made a solo LP, with 2015’s The Desired Effect, he made something extremely inventive and unique. While that record had shades of The Killers in its DNA, it was thoroughly its own animal—the rare solo album from an established rock ‘n’ roll frontman that offered something as potent and singular as his work with the full band. Flamingo isn’t that. Instead, this album—the first Brandon Flowers solo LP—plays like the great lost Killers album. By this point in the Flowers/Killers narrative, the band had essentially been riding an unstoppable wave since before the release of Hot Fuss. The schedule was: make a record, put out a record, tour the world, court some controversy, rinse, repeat. By the time 2010 rolled around, the band was burned out and in need of a break. Flowers wanted to keep going, so he made Flamingo. It’s hard not to yearn for the full might of the band on these songs, especially widescreen scene-setters like “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,” or would-be arena-fillers like “Crossfire.” You want the roar of Dave Keuning’s guitar, the tumultuous rain of Ronnie Vannucci’s drums, or the dark Joy Division-esque grumble of Mark Stoermer’s bass. Even without those ingredients, though, Flamingo thrives. In terms of pure songwriting, Flowers has rarely been better than he is on “Hard Enough,” a clear-eyed plea for a second chance at a relationship that failed the first time; or “On the Floor,” a nightmarish, gospel-tinged slow burn that sits near the end of the album. With the full band, Flamingo would have been a classic. As a solo affair, it’s a tad too polite, lacking the wall-scaling audacity that makes Day & Age (a considerably weaker set of songs) feel somehow more consequential. Luckily, when we got this level of songwriting from Flowers, plus the full might of The Killers, we got what I consider to be their best album: 2012’s Battle Born.

139. Brothers Osborne - Pawn Shop

Brothers Osborne were a breath of fresh air in country music for a lot of reasons. They arrived in the waning stages of the bro country movement, and they could have almost been mistaken for the next incarnation of the Florida Georgia Line mold thanks to songs like “Rum.” But if you delve into Pawn Shop, the familial duo’s first full-length, you’ll find a lot of substance to latch onto—both musically and lyrically. TJ Osborne’s sandpaper baritone voice is worlds different from all the Luke Bryan soundalikes that populate country radio, and John Osborne’s ripping lead guitar skills—especially on the massive solo that grounds “Stay a Little Longer”—made him a guitar hero in a decade with far too few of them. But lots of Nashville artists can sing, and most of them end up backed by super-skilled sessions players anyway. What made Brothers Osborne stick was how cleverly and genuinely they shook up country tropes. “21 Summer” is an all-timer in the “summertime nostalgia anthem” category, capturing the kind of youthful summer fling that you can’t ever quite let go of. “Heart Shaped Locket” is a dark twist on the cheating song genre, with a climactic moment that is thrilling and threatening even though the story never turns violent. And “Loving Me Back” takes the overused “love is a drug” metaphor and turns it into a soul-elevating, gospel-touched beauty.

140. The Menzingers - On the Impossible Past

On the Impossible Past. I always loved that title. I never knew exactly what it meant, and for a long time, I didn’t even appreciate the album that it came from. But something about that title was magnetic to me. It seemed to convey this sense of deep, unquenchable yearning—for a time, or an ideal, or a relationship, or a sense of innocence that’s gone for good. On the record, “On the Impossible Past” is a minimalist interlude about crashing a car into a ditch. It’s the same “American muscle car” that shows up in the opening track, “Good Things.” “Like when we would take rides/In your American muscle car/I felt American for once in my life/I never felt it again.” Early this decade, my first opportunity to write about music outside of my own blog came for a European publication called Rockfreaks. Right after I joined the staff, I remember the site running a perfect 10-out-of-10 review of this record. And I remember how the writer, who was from Denmark, wrote about the world this record built for him: one that was deeply American but also undeniably universal. “I’ve never been to America, never driven a muscle car, never smoked a cigarette, and never loved a waitress,” he wrote, and it didn’t matter. The story of On the Impossible Past—of having a horrible time pulling yourself together; of hanging out in diners; of driving around aimlessly late into the night; of running out of money; of getting drunk and washing dishes with a significant other; of getting high and listening to your boredom—is a story a lot of people have lived. It’s a story that is mundane, but also one that is crammed with passion and love and life. There’s nothing airbrushed are fake about On the Impossible Past. It is the truth, told by characters who are complicated, about lives and worlds and economic situations and day-to-day troubles that are complicated, too. No wonder it became one of the true classics of this era.
141. Ingrid Michaelson - Lights Out

At this point, Ingrid Michaelson’s career can be fairly split into two halves. First, she was a folk-leaning singer/songwriter who benefitted greatly from the brief peak of coffeehouse-themed channels on XM and Sirius satellite radio. Later, she became a full-on pop artist, slinging anthems like “Hell No” straight toward the Top 40 charts. Lights Out is her in-between album, an idiosyncratic, all-over-the-place set of songs that flits from rousing crowd-singalong jams like “Girls Chase Boys” or “One Night Town” to moments of pure intimacy, like “Wonderful Unknown” and “Ready to Lose.” The mix doesn’t really make for a cohesive album, but Michaelson’s songcraft is pure, raw, and personal in a way that pop music often isn’t. Her love songs feel lived-in and organic. Her break-up songs ache with the hurt of something that can’t be reclaimed. And her summer-ready, seize-the-day anthems—particularly the splendid “Afterlife”—are bold, epic, and uplifting. Sonically experimental while still keeping the wit and girl-next-door charm that made Michaelson so relatable in the first place, Lights Out is maybe my favorite Ingrid Michaelson album, just for how it captures her at so many of her best angles. I also fondly remember listening to this album all spring in 2014, leading up to my wedding day. It’s an album my wife and I shared, often putting it on as an agreeable soundtrack for long, long drives home from the Chicago area, where we were living at the time. I don’t miss those drives, and I don’t miss Chicago, but I still love thinking back to the excitement of that season—excitement this album still holds within its songs. 

142. Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy

Damien Rice disappeared for so long that when news of My Favourite Faded Fantasy started to emerge, I thought it was a cruel April Fools prank. I bought 9 with my birthday money the week after I turned 16. My Favourite Faded Fantasy arrived in the fall after I got married, shortly before my 24th birthday. So much of my life changed in the intervening years, but hearing Rice’s voice again on songs like “I Don’t Want to Change You” and “The Greatest Bastard” made it feel like no time had passed at all. These songs were packed with the pent-up heartbreak, regret, and resignation that Rice had been sitting on for eight years. As the story goes, Lisa Hannigan was Damien’s muse, lover, and musical partner on 9 and O, his emotionally raw debut. When their relationship fractured, Rice told everyone that he would trade all his songs and all his fame to have her back in his life. He almost did, but in the end, the music won. The result is one of the decade’s most patiently beautiful albums, packed with stuff like “Colour Me In” and “Trusty and True” that is among Rice’s best material ever. On the latter, Damien even seems to stumble toward something we hadn’t heard much in his music up to that point: hope.
143. The 1975 - I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it is, at once, the biggest argument for and the biggest argument against The 1975. On the one hand, it is an obnoxious overreach. Suffice to say that the 74-minute runtime is as exhausting as the album title. On the other hand, I like it when you sleep is a sterling example of everything that a modern rock band can be if they want it enough. On this album, The 1975 use genres and influences like playthings. They write colossal pop songs like “The Sound” and then sequence them just a few tracks away from acoustic folk heartbreakers like “Nana.” They get honest and candid about heartbreak, drug addiction, grief over lost loved ones, and people who post photos of their salads on the internet. And they somehow manage to make all their extremes coalesce into one of the decade’s most immersive, jaw-dropping listening experiences. In The 1975 catalog, the first album had more obvious highlights, while A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships was the record that really hit the zeitgeist and made The 1975 into critical darlings. Here, though, they were still in a unique position: under-the-radar and written-off enough to play the underdogs, but big enough stars to reach for arena-scraping grandeur. The result is, top to bottom, their greatest work of art—even if it’s not my personal favorite.

144. The Gaslight Anthem - Get Hurt

“I came to get hurt/Might as well do your worst to me.” Brian Fallon sings those words, gruff and unguarded, on the crushing title track of Get Hurt. The line and the song come just three tracks into an album beset on all sides by heartbreak, change, and exhaustion. Fallon’s marriage had crumbled and his band was feeling the strain of a tireless write-record-release-tour schedule that stretched back the better part of a decade. By the time Get Hurt arrived in the summer of 2014, it was the fourth Brian Fallon-related album in as many years. Everyone was burned out and everyone’s patience was fraying. It was a wildly different place than where we’d left the band just two years before, after Gaslight had scored a breakthrough with 2012’s Handwritten. That album’s leadoff single, “45,” had been their most popular song ever, and the album’s larger-than-life sonic palette—courtesy of producer Brendan O’Brien—made them sound a lot like the next big thing. Add the mainstream punch to the mantle that had been tossed at Fallon’s feet since the early days—that he was the next Bruce Springsteen—and Get Hurt should have been the next logical step toward superstardom. But the success and lofty comparisons also put a target on Fallon’s back, and Get Hurt quickly became a punching bag. Pitchfork eviscerated it and other publications compared it to Nickelback. The mean-spirited reaction dovetailed with the band’s exhaustion and Fallon’s personal-life turmoil to derail arguably the greatest rock band of the 21st century, and they have yet to release another album.

Get Hurt, in retrospect, is as messy as all these circumstances would lead you to believe. Fallon and company are caught between wanting to reach even higher (massive rockers like “1,000 Years” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”) and wanting to turn away from the limelight (jagged and insular cuts like “Stay Vicious,” “Stray Paper,” and “Underneath the Ground”). The result is the least cohesive Gaslight Anthem record—an album that lacks the arc and flow that made albums like The ’59 Sound and American Slang greater than the sum of their parts. But it’s also an incredibly revealing portrait of a band under unbearable amounts of pressure. Amidst the experimentation and all of Fallon’s attempts to avoid his usual writing signatures, the embattled frontman jams poignant and devastating accounts of his pain into the songs. On “Get Hurt,” he thinks about packing up and leaving Jersey for California—something you could hardly picture him doing on The ’59 Sound. And on the shattering closing track “Dark Places,” he pledges: “If I thought it would help, I would drive this car into the sea.” The song is a legitimately upsetting account from a broken man, recognizing his own need for a change, or a rest, or a chance to drift away for awhile. Fallon’s story ultimately had a happy ending, chronicled on his first two solo albums. For The Gaslight Anthem, though, the story still rings bittersweet, thanks to this album. They, alongside a few contemporaries, were living proof that rock ‘n’ roll could thrive in the 2010s. And one by one, they drifted away.

145. Frank Turner - Positive Songs for Negative People

On 2013’s Tape Deck Heart, Frank Turner was a heartbroken mess. On Positive Songs for Negative People, he sounds rejuvenated and he sings like his life depends on it. Songs like “Get Better,” “The Next Storm,” and “Glorious You” are imbued with the reckless optimism that comes with realizing that yes, life does in fact go on. Getting over a rough patch in your life—whether it’s a breakup or a big failure—can be difficult. But realizing that you’re still alive and that your heart is still beating can also be hugely life-affirming. Realizing that you’re strong enough to weather those storms can give you a new lease on your life, and a new drive to explore all the possibility the world has to offer. This album rings with that promise. Even the breakup songs—tracks like “Mittens” and “Love Forty Down”—can’t help but sound a little hopeful. It doesn’t hurt that Butch Walker is sitting behind the boards, offering up what might be his career-best production work, or encouraging Frank to deliver raw, live vocal tracks on every song. The radiant highs of this album are intoxicating, which only makes it that much more heartbreaking when, on the last track, everything comes crashing back to Earth. The closer, called “Song for Josh,” is a crushing ode to a friend who chose to end his own life, delivered through tears during a live show at the venue where that friend used to work. “Why didn’t you call? My phone’s always on,” Frank sings at the beginning of the song. It’s a sobering note to end the album on, and a reminder that, even as you face your own burdens and battles, you never know what the people around you might be grappling with, too.

146. Josh Abbott Band - Front Row Seat

On most records, the artist is the protagonist. There’s an implicit contract, in listening to most music, that you side with the person singing the songs. What’s fascinating about Josh Abbott Band’s Front Row Seat is how it subverts that contract. Abbott, an extremely successful singer from the niche “Texas country” scene, structured this album to tell the entire story of his first marriage. It starts as you would expect it to, with opener “While I’m Young” functioning as the jaunty “boy meets girl” moment. The first half of the album is a love story, moving from that chance encounter in a bar to honeymoon stage infatuation to the intimacy that comes with time and engagement and marriage. But then the plot twists, and you get to the back half of the record—a stretch of seven tracks that pummel you with their sadness and resignation. We’ve heard this before: it’s breakup album 101, dating back to legendary records like Blood on the Tracks. For decades, we’ve listened to artists tell us all about their broken hearts and the people to blame for them. The thing with Front Row Seat is that Abbott is the guy to blame. “It ain’t your fault/I might have been born to break your heart,” he sings at one point, and he did. Abbott’s marriage broke apart because he cheated on his wife while he was out on tour. He knows it’s reprehensible, and that it’s a mistake he’ll never stop regretting. There are no excuses here, or attempts to redirect blame. Songs like “Ghosts,” “Amnesia,” “Autumn,” and “Anonymity” grapple compellingly with the way a momentary mistake can be big enough and unforgivable enough to upend your entire life. By casting himself as the villain, Abbott somehow makes the art of a breakup song ache that much more.

147. Miranda Lambert - Wildcard

The last time we heard from Miranda Lambert, she was getting over a heartbreak—seemingly in real time, on tape for all to hear. That album, 2016’s post-divorce opus The Weight of These Wings, blew Lambert’s personal life up into a big screen subject, exploring her split from ex-husband Blake Shelton over the course of an epic double album sprawl. In contrast, Wildcard seems almost tongue-in-cheek. There’s one song called “White Trash,” where Lambert makes light of the insults that close-minded people have occasionally thrown her way over the course of her career. There’s another song called “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” which is kind of like a rewrite of the “Cell Block Tango” from the musical Chicago, only with the ladies deciding not to kill their cheating, good-for-nothing, bastard husbands. Other tunes extol the virtues of strong Mexican spirts (“Tequila Does”), hand-wave all the disasters and social blunders that might come over the course of a lifetime (“It All Comes out in the Wash”), and own Miranda’s reputation as a maneater (“Track Record”). The result is the most purely fun album Lambert has made in years—perhaps ever. But when the serious moments crackle through—the sweeping forbidden romance epic of “Fire Escape,” or the personal reckoning of “Dark Bars”—they add an extra layer of sincerity and maturity that gives the funnier songs more depth. One of the best lessons Lambert learned on Weight was that songs didn’t have to be just happy, or just sad, or just sassy, or just funny, or just badass, or just inspirational: sometimes, they can be all those things at once.

148. Kalie Shorr - Open Book

Kalie Shorr had a long, hard road to travel to get to Open Book. While this record is her debut, she’s been a factor in the up-and-coming country music scene for at least half a decade—especially in the fight to support and elevate the genre’s female songwriters. While her EPs were strong, though, Open Book is a triumph. It is the kind of raw, honest, unflinching album that you can only make when you’ve been through hell and come out on the other side. For Shorr, that hell was losing her sister to a heroin overdose. This album reckons with that tragedy, along with a million other smaller battles she’s fought to get to this point: a childhood that wasn’t picture perfect, with a family that definitely had its issues; a complicated relationship with her father; a lot of heartbreaks, courtesy of a lot of shitty guys; her own vices, mistakes, and regrets. The resulting set of songs is sometimes funny (“F U Forever,” 2019’s greatest kiss-off anthem), often deeply poignant (“Big Houses,” a love letter from Shorr to her mom), and occasionally unendurably painful (“The World Keeps Spinning,” about moving on after her sister’s death). But the album peaks with “Lullaby,” a hymn to the resilience of the human spirit and to closing the book on the bad chapters to start newer and hopefully better ones. The song is the album in microcosm, existing somewhere between the early 2010s pop-country of Taylor Swift, the angsty teen pop of Let Go-era Avril Lavigne, and the quiet-to-loud emotional dynamics of Dashboard Confessional circa A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar. It’s Shorr’s own little corner of the country music scene, and she owns it with wit, heart, and brutal honesty.

149. Eric Church - Chief 

Eric Church would become more contemplative, more ambitious, and more interesting as he moved further into his career. On Chief, though, he was at the crossroads between his pop-country gifts and his classic rock impulses. The result is both his commercial peak and his most immediate record. It’s all weekend beers and whiskey hangovers and summertime romances, blasting like a jukebox in a rowdy bar. The lyrics are usually decidedly small-scale, offering slice-of-life narratives that aren’t far from the bar band rock ‘n’ roll that made up one-half of Springsteen’s The River. There’s the working-class hero of “Drink in My Hand,” counting down to Friday evening when he can cut loose and transform into a livelier version of himself. There’s the titular subject of “Homeboy,” a stubborn, smartass, hip-hop-loving teen rebelling against his parents for the sole purpose of being contrary. There’s the small-town backroads romance of “Springsteen,” a tribute to the way a melody can sound like a memory when you hear a song from your teen years crackling through the car radio on a July Saturday night. But despite the subject matter, Chief saw Church reaching for the big leagues, with anthemic, hooky songs and muscular arrangements capable of scraping the cheap seats in an arena. When it came out, Chief looked like Church’s coronation as country music’s new superstar entertainer. Looking back, it plays more like the origin story for the decade’s greatest rock star. That it can be both without contradicting itself is a tribute to the quality of the songs and the dynamic talents of the man who brought them to life.

150. Butch Walker and the Black Widows - I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart

It says a lot that even Butch Walker’s worst album lands at 150 on my albums of the decade list. By most accounts, I Liked It Better is a flawed album. It feels scattershot and random where most Butch albums are cohesive and unified, and it lacks the lofty highlights that I’d come to expect from him by this point in his career. Here, on his first of two albums with The Black Widows, Butch loosened his control over his own music, allowing co-writers—especially Michael Trent—to have a lot of influence on the direction of his sound. The result is a Butch Walker album that often doesn’t feel like a Butch Walker album. There are dusky country songs and vaudevillian pop songs and Beatles-inspired ditties and at least two songs that sound like the modern folk of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. There’s not much of Butch’s trademark, tongue-in-cheek rock ‘n’ roll—though that side of him definitely creeps in on late-album highlights like “They Don’t Know What We Know” and “Days/Months/Years,” as well as on rock-solid live show staples like “Pretty Melody” and “She Likes Hair Bands.” Even if it’s not my favorite Butch Walker album, though, I have a lot of good memories of these songs. I vividly recall sitting in my dorm room during my freshman year of college, excitedly waiting for the album to download. I even more vividly recall a two-day spell in the spring of 2010 when my brother and I caught two Butch shows back to back. Most vividly, I remember the first night I ever spent hanging out one-on-one with the girl I’d end up marrying. It was a not-quite-date where we drove all around town before finally ending up at a local beach, just the two of us, lying on the sand, looking at the early July stars, and learning all about one another. In Friends, they call this occurrence “The Night,” or: “When two people finally realize their feelings for each other, and they talk for hours, and they learn all about the other person.” When I got in my car to drive home, “Don’t You Think Someone Should Take You Home” was playing on my iPod. From the beginning, I’d had that song earmarked for late-night drives on hot muggy evenings. I knew it would play that role. I didn’t know it would end up serving as the coda to one of the most pivotal nights of my life. But then again, that’s what your favorite artists do sometimes: even with their weakest albums, they’re still there to soundtrack your world. 

151. Valenica - Dancing with a Ghost

The last time we’d heard from Valenci, in the late 2000s, frontman Shane Henderson was still reeling from the tragic and sudden death of his girlfriend. The band’s 2008 album, We All Need a Reason to Believe, was wrought with pathos from that event. It sounded like a bright, summer-ready pop-punk album on the surface, but the lyrics packed a hefty emotional punch. Dancing with a Ghost plays, to me, like one of the great recovery records of the decade. “Have you skipped through broken records of your past and future self?” Henderson sings at the very beginning of the album, on the propulsive title track. It sounds like a mission statement for the album: about leaving the past behind, even if you’re not totally sure what the future might look like now that every plan you ever made is gone. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight. Recalibrating your dreams and your plans takes time, and leads to stumbles and false starts. But Dancing with a Ghost seems to embrace those false starts with optimism. “I know somehow, some way, things will get better” goes the refrain in “Spinning Out.” The album isn’t always so sunny: on “Losing Sleep,” the narrator drives straight into the clouds of a foreboding storm, ignoring the prophecies of the weather report as he goes. But most of Ghost is an upbeat blast, stacked with pop-punk jams the likes of which we haven’t seen much since (see “The Way” and “Days Go By”) and doing it all with genuine emotion and heart. It’s a shame that, as of right now, this album is Valencia’s swansong.

152. Green Day - Revolution Radio

A lot of people think that Green Day went political on American Idiot and have largely been making protest rock ever since. What made that album special, though, was how it wove its politics into a broader story about coming of age and reckoning with your own mistakes and naivete. Revolution Radio is not as ambitious as American Idiot. It isn’t a rock opera, for one thing. But it succeeds in part because it takes the lessons learned on Idiot to heart: first, ground the politics in the personal; second, wrap it all up in songs that are catchy, fun, and digestible—even if their subject matter is meant to stick around after the record stops spinning. And a lot of these songs do demand some reflection. “Say Goodbye” evokes Flint, Michigan, while “Bang Bang” is a troubling, potentially-in-poor-taste look into the brain of a mass shooter (that also happens to be a riotously catchy pop-punk song). Revolution Radio came out right before Trump won the presidency, but it was so prescient that it sounds even angrier and more urgent three years later. Those moments of political disenfranchisement are intercut with songs like “Outlaws,” about youthful rebellion and longtime friendships, or “Ordinary World,” about holding the things that matter to you closely even as the world spins out of control. And when the personal and political collide, on the seven-minute, two-part opus “Forever Now,” the message comes across clearly: we protest and criticize and fight against the bad things in our world because we want to live fulfilling lives. We want to live lives defined by freedom and love and family and good will toward our fellow men and women. Instead, we’ve given away our freedoms, grown hostile toward one another, and focused in on the things that make us different rather than recognizing all the things that make us the same. “If this is what you call the good life/I want a better way to die,” Billie Joe Armstrong proclaims, rejecting the idea that our world can’t be a better place. Ultimately, that’s what the album is about: as long as we’re still breathing, we have a chance to reach for something better.

153. The Damnwells - The Damnwells

What do you think of when you think of a “break-up album”? For most of us, it’s probably an album we related very deeply to a personally fraught period from our past. These albums come in many forms, but they’re often awash in melancholy sadness, potent self-pity, and maybe even a bit of self-righteous blame or vindictive anger. Especially if you came of age in the pop-punk era, as I did, you’re well-versed in the latter. The Damnwells is a different kind of break-up album. It’s a break-up album with the perspective of age, time, knowledge, and experience. Absent are the mercurial emotions of the break-up albums you loved as a teenager. In the lead-up to this album, the guys in The Damnwells counted off “cross-country moves, grad school, marriage, divorce, and a couple of corporate jobs” as the inspiration for the songs. The resulting album is a kick in the gut. It’s a record about bad husbands, and girls who aren’t in love with you, and being way too old now to die young. Frontman Alex Dezen delivers the lyrics with a wry, self-deprecating sort of resignation, but that fact oddly just manages to make them more crushing. “She walked with you under countless stars/She bought the drinks at the cheaper bars/You found a way to make her laugh out loud/But she’s somebody else’s baby now,” he sings in “The Girl That’s Not in Love with You,” before adding the line that will surely break your heart: “It just kills you that she still wants to be your friend.” What could be worse than that—than the girl you used to love not wanting to be with you, but still wanting to stay in touch? If you’re waiting for the answer, the album gives you one, in the form of the last track. “You said, ‘Maybe we’ll meet someday in the middle of the street.’/But I know I’ll never see you again.” The Damnwells captures that feeling, of uncoupling yourself from a person who has been a major, pivotal part of your life, with the knowledge that your time as lovers or friends or even acquaintances is over. Fittingly enough, that last song, an achingly understated ballad called “None of These Things,” was the last track The Damnwells ever put on a record. It’s all a bit like that old Third Eye Blind lyric: “How it going to be/When you don’t know me anymore?”

154. Thomas Rhett - Life Changes

I wanted to hate Thomas Rhett. I really did. He was the antithesis of everything I was supposed to admire as a fan of “real” country artists like Stapleton and Sturgill and Turnpike Troubadours and Tyler Childers. He was blatantly commercial! He was dispensing with the sound of traditional country and incorporating elements of pop and R&B and hip-hop! He was ruling the genre with limited vocal ability and a mere fraction of the musical skill of so many other deserving artists! But little by little, Life Changes chipped away at my defenses until they were nothing but rubble. About Rhett, all the things I said above are true. But it’s also true that he’s one of the best craftsmen of hooks in any genre. And it’s also true that his writing is often more than meets the eye, tucking detailed, highly autobiographical narratives into ridiculously catchy pop-country songs. Moreover, Rhett’s desire to push the boundaries of what country can be results in one of the most dynamic, enjoyable albums in the genre this decade. Life Changes isn’t cohesive—how could it be when it flits from EDM to '50s doo-wop to Petty-flavored heartland rock in the space of just a few tracks? But it touches on so many different sounds and styles that it’s impossible to be bored while listening. Some of the songs are only interesting as sonic experiments. The swooning, Sinatra-esque “Sweetheart,” for instance, sounds cool on paper but sags a bit in execution. But other moments of the record are just damn sturdy writing, like the weepy “Marry Me,” about watching the person you love get hitched to someone else; or “Unforgettable,” about a beautiful girl drinking a mango-rita and singing a Coldplay song. These songs, along with wistful anthems of youth like “Sixteen,” “Renegades,” and “Smooth Like the Summer,” capture two of the things I love most about country music. No other genre so effectively distills the potency of nostalgia and no other genre so effectively distills the possibility of a perfect summer night. Rhett does both of those things just about as well as any artist in the game.

155. The 1975 - A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships

The 1975 are the rare band that have always been fearless. They learned early on how to act like superstars, even if they weren’t yet. And lo and behold, somewhere along the line, they managed to will themselves into that status. Even by The 1975’s standards, though, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a big swing. On this album’s predecessor, 2016’s I like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, the goal seemed to be to make an album that flowed like a dreamscape. It was a puzzle where every piece fit logically, and the result was a listening experience so deeply entrancing and immersive that you came out the other side wondering where the time had gone. A Brief Inquiry is not that. This album takes a new left turn every five minutes, cramming shades of jazz, hip-hop, synthpop, electronic music, singer-songwriter, Britpop, ‘80s power balladry, ‘90s adult contemporary, and unabashed rock ‘n’ roll anthem into the tracklist. You can argue about whether it all hangs together as a cohesive whole (I honestly don’t believe it does) but the high points—the careening electric guitar zips of “Give Yourself a Try,” the zeitgeisty anthem that is “Love It If We Made It,” the candy-coated hooks of “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You),” the “Champagne Supernova”-aping “I Always Want to Die (Sometimes)”—stand as some of the very best tracks anyone put on an album this decade.

156. Vince Gill - Down to My Last Bad Habit

Vince Gill is one of the greatest singers in the history of country music, and one of the finest songwriters. On Down to My Last Bad Habit, he makes it clear that he hasn’t lost a step, even as he enters the elder stateman period of his career. Released a year and change shy of Gill’s 60th birthday, Down to My Last Bad Habit still sounds remarkably vibrant and emotional. Where most singers—especially men—tend to start losing range and vocal depth as they get older, Gill sings the absolute shit out of stunners like the title track, a soulful ballad about not being able to quit a woman who walked out the door. It’s a voice that can still pack power and punch into big-chorus anthems like “Reasons for the Tears I Cry” or “When It’s Love,” or lend gentle elegance to slow-dance ballads like “I’ll Be Waiting for You.” Plus, as always, Gill shows himself to be a generous champion of the next generation of country music. One song is an Ashley Monroe co-write, while another features up-and-coming singer-songwriter Cam and a third brings in the folks from Little Big Town. The album itself didn’t get much attention, because records by older “past their prime” musicians rarely do, but it’s easily one of the decade’s most perfectly constructed country LPs.
157. Noah Gundersen - White Noise 

White Noise is a lot of things the two Noah Gundersen albums that came before it were not. It’s frustrating and inconsistent. It’s self-indulgent. It overstays its welcome and has a few legitimately bad tracks. Where Ledges and Carry the Ghost were masterpieces—at least from my perspective—White Noise is a bit of an unruly mess. It’s also a fascinating piece of work, and an album so ambitious and far-reaching that it instantly established Noah as one of the most interesting voices making music today. You could have written Noah off, after Ledges and Ghost, as just another singer-songwriter: a sad white guy with a guitar, leaning on styles and sounds of the past rather than blazing a new trail. But nothing sounds like White Noise. It is big, bold, brash, loud, and thoroughly modern in a way that most singer-songwriters never try. It takes big swings, hits big home runs, and suffers big strikeouts. But even with the misses, it’s truly electric to hear a songwriter of Noah’s caliber expand his sonic palette the way he does on songs like “After All” and “Heavy Metals.” Sure, the best tracks are the ones that sound the most like the Noah of the past: the forlorn small-town drama of “Fear & Loathing”; the treatise on modern crisis that is “Dry Year”; and the epic, cathartic build of “Send the Rain (To Everyone).” But when Noah surrounds his acoustic triumphs with songs that draw just as convincingly from ‘90s alt-rock (“Number One Hit of the Summer”), John Mayer-style blues-pop (“Bad Desire”), and psychedelic Beatles records (“New Religion”), he opens up a whole new world of musical possibilities to explore.

158. Catherine McGrath - Talk of This Town

Talk of This Town should have been this decade’s Fearless. Just like Taylor Swift’s world-conquering breakthrough, the debut album from Scottish country singer Catherine McGrath is a rich, catchy, and wistful collection of songs that chronicle the angst of coming-of-age. Fearless was a country album filtered through the hooks, topics, and concerns of teen pop. Talk of This Town is the same. There are songs about chasing your dreams after high school and maybe falling on your face. There is a song about being at a Coldplay concert with a guy you like who is only thinking about the girl who broke his heart. There are lots of songs about unrequited love, and about the hurt of sitting right next to someone you think you’re in love with, knowing that they are never going to see you as anything more than a friend. There are songs about first kisses and honeymoon phases and about vowing not to lose the magic of those first kisses and honeymoon phases as a relationship moves forward. There is an ache to McGrath’s voice that recalls exactly how your heart felt when you were young and experiencing these same things. It’s easy to roll your eyes at an album like this, that is all about things that seem so important at 17 or 19 or 21 but prove ultimately to be largely superfluous. But that’s not how those moments feel when you’re in them. They feel like life or death; like moments on a movie screen; like a grand, epic drama with you at the center. When McGrath sings about boys or breakups or bad nights, the ache in her voice alone is enough to remind you how it felt to feel so much, so deeply.

159. Donovan Woods - The Widowmaker

The Widowmaker sounds like frozen streets and prairie towns blanketed in snow. It sounds like hoarfrost on trees and memories locked in ice. It sounds like winter, in all its quiet, cold, lonesome beauty. I first heard this album on Christmas Day 2010, and it was the start of a new era of holiday seasons for me. In the past, I’d mostly spent holiday breaks enjoying a much-needed escape from everything. I’d see friends a few times—usually around New Year’s—but I’d mostly put in a lot of quality family time and enjoy long, lazy days at home. 2010 was different. I was dating the girl I’d ultimately end up marrying and we were trying to juggle time together with our family obligations for the season. I spent a lot of days that winter break driving back and forth between our houses—a 30-minute-long haul, despite the fact that we technically lived in the same town. This album was playing on a lot of those drives, especially the late-night return treks. There was something about the delicate beauty of songs like “Lawren Harris” and especially “No Time Has Passed” that sounded so perfect in those moments. Listening back to the album now, knowing how much Donovan Woods would come to mean to me as a songwriter, it’s amazing how much this album still feels like those 2010 December nights to me. Some albums grow with us and pick up new memories as we go. Others are perfect time capsules pieces of memories and moments and feelings that we might otherwise forget. This album is one of those, and I couldn’t have made this list without including it as part of the scrapbook.

160. Transit - Listen and Forgive

2011 wasn’t so far from my high school days. When I listened to Transit’s Listen & Forgive during that gorgeous, golden autumn, though, I felt like an eternity had passed. “Lately, you’ve been looking at me like you’ve seen a ghost/And isn’t it obvious who’s been missing who the most?” goes the chorus of a song called “Long Lost Friends.” As I’m writing these words, it’s been 10 years since I graduated high school and almost three since I last saw my best friend. In 2011, when I first heard this album, I was two years past the beginning of my senior year. But two summers had elapsed since high school at that point, enough time for the bonds I built with friends to start fraying or at least loosening a bit. These songs wrecked me. They spoke of memories like skipping stones and of tides bringing those stones back to us, sometimes when we least expected it. They talked about how growing up often meant growing into the sadder songs, discovering the hurt hidden away in the lines you misread or overlooked when you were younger. And they talked about the definitive struggle of young adulthood: trying to find your place, your identify, yourself—only to learn that so much territory has already been staked and claimed. The album is one fraught with sadness: with lost friendships and broken relationships and the failures that ultimately prove formative and crucial but seem like mortal wounds in the moment. Transit’s story proved to be a sad one, too. Once one of the most promising pop-punk bands in the scene, Transit sputtered and stalled on later albums and ultimately called it quits in 2014. And earlier this year, it was announced that Tim Landers, ex-guitarist for the band, had passed away. For this one classic record, though, Transit distilled the angst of growing up and growing apart from your youth into one of the decade’s preeminent coming-of-age albums.

161. Matchbox Twenty - North 

Matchbox Twenty were one of my first favorite bands. Yourself or Someone Like You is a record that still reminds me vividly of first grade, while both Mad Season and More Than You Think You Are were heavy-rotation albums when I started really getting into music around 13 or 14. Back then, I found out about new releases from artists I liked when singles I hadn’t heard yet popped up on the radio. In 2003 or 2004, I remember fantasizing about what it would be like when Matchbox Twenty released a new album, so that I could experience the rollout for the first time as a tuned-in fan. I didn’t know that I was about to wait a long, long time. The next Matchbox Twenty song didn’t break until 2007, to go along with the band’s greatest hits album. The next album was this one, North, which arrived in 2012, just a few months shy of More Than You Think You Are’s 10th birthday. It was, honestly, bizarre. I’d thought for a long time that I would never hear another Matchbox Twenty record—and no, Rob Thomas’s solo output is not the same thing. The long-awaited fourth LP arriving eight or nine years after the peak of my fandom seemed to beg the question: can the bands that meant something to you as a kid still mean something to you on the cusp of adulthood? But then I pushed play, and the wistful guitar notes of “Parade” drifted out of my speakers, and Rob Thomas sang the opening lines: “When the slow parade went past/And it felt so good you knew it couldn’t last/And all too soon, the end was gonna come without a warning/And you’d have to just go home.” The day I first heard that song was the day before I left home at the end of my last college summer. I was leaving a job I’d never work again, with a group of people who would never all be in the same room again, and departing a house that I would never live in again beyond a stray night here or there when I would visit my parents. And here was this song—this perfectly fitting, beautiful, sobering song about how some things can’t last. Listening to that track—and to the rest of this album—took me right back to being a kid and to innocently loving everything about this band’s music. In just a few notes, North seemed to shrink the years between those two versions of me. It still does.

162. Old Dominion - Old Dominion

Old Dominion have always been incredible melodic craftsmen, capable of repeatedly writing the catchiest songs in all of pop-country. Early on, though, it would have been easy to dismiss them as bro-country wannabes. While their debut, 2015’s Meat and Candy (an album I like quite a lot), was cleverer and had more heart than anything Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan ever made, songs like “Beer Can in a Truck Bed” and “Said Nobody” had a fratty energy about them that was hard to ignore. Hearing this band progress toward maturity while maintaining their instinctive grasp on how to write a hook has been a joy, and they’ve reached the peak of that progression with their self-titled third album. The songs on Old Dominion are still catchy as hell—and they even sound pristine, with big guitar licks, gorgeous piano work, and surprisingly classic-sounding production choices—but they also delve deeper than this band has gone in the past. “One Man Band” and “My Heart Is a Bar” are smart explorations of loneliness and how it only deepens as you get older and go through more years of trying and failing to find the one; “Hear You Now” is a song about really shutting up and listening to the person you love—and about how some of us only learn how to do that when it’s too late; and “Some People Do” is an almost shockingly raw plea for reconciliation—the rare post-breakup “I’m sorry” song where the protagonist really, truly seems bent on becoming better. I’ve always liked Old Dominion, in part because they never seemed to take themselves too seriously. There was always an edge of a grin or a wink in their songs, which lent a warmth and humanity to their music that tends to be missing from most radio country. Old Dominion retains that welcoming feel, but pairs it with songs that are more personal, more soulful, and more driven by matters of the heart than past efforts. The result is the best album yet from this undervalued pop-country band.
163. Foo Fighters - Wasting Light

It seems like virtually every Foo Fighters record has to have some sort of concept. Not a story, and not even a music theme, but something the band can talk about in interviews to juice conversation. On In Your Honor, it was the double album approach, plus the electric-acoustic dichotomy. On Sonic Highways, it was the gimmick of recording each of the eight songs in a different city with a different guest from that city. Even Concrete & Gold seemed to want to say something about the balance of classic rock influences (Paul McCartney showed up on a track) and modern touch (Greg Kurstin was the producer). The band got so caught up in concepts over the past 15 years that even their no-frills, back-to-basics record seemed like a big picture move. Wasting Light was billed in 2011 as a return to the band’s 90s roots. They recorded it in Dave Grohl’s garage, and Butch Vig (producer of a little 90s album called Nevermind) manned the boards. The result is that Wasting Light ends up sounding exactly like a 90s rock record: loud; immediate; catchy; flirting with anthemic arena rock but only occasionally embracing it fully. The band steers toward darkness near the end of the album—on shadowy numbers like “Miss the Misery” and “I Should Have Known,” the latter of which reunites two of the three members of Nirvana. But then they blast everything into the sun on “Walk,” a rousing, joyful rock song that kept Foo Fighters’ very long string of perfect singles alive for at least one more album cycle.

164. Glen Hansard - Rhythm & Repose

Rhythm & Repose was the first record I ever reviewed for AbsolutePunk, after being asked to join the staff. I always thought that was significant, because Glen Hansard had been a hero of mine for five years at that point. There are still very few film performances that resonate with me the way his turn in Once did, and those songs are frankly written on my soul. Writing about his debut solo album—and a record that is so clearly so personal—felt like a fitting start to my own journey as a writer. I’ve always tried to be honest and candid and personal in my work. I feel that, by sharing stories of our lives and of the things we love—in this case, music—we can discover new shades of empathy or new commonalities with others that we didn’t know were there. Glen has always known that, and this album might be the clearest display of it. He wrote it after his split from Marketa Irglova—his Once co-star and real-life romantic interest in the wake of the film. Some of the songs sound like they’re being sung by a heartbroken person one verse shy of a breakdown (“Bird of Sorrow,” “What Are We Gonna Do”), while others spark with tentative optimism for the future (there are two tracks with the word “hope” in the title). But the song that always cut the deepest for me was “Maybe Not Tonight,” an achingly gorgeous George Harrison-esque ballad that finds two lovers at a crossroads—enjoying one last summer evening of idyllic romance before they go their separate ways. “Maybe we should say goodbye,” Glen sings at one point; “But maybe not tonight.”
165. Steve Moakler - Wide Open

In college, I took a writing class where the professor always encouraged us to find the “aboutness” in a piece of writing—whether it was ours or someone else’s. Writing that was focused and intentional about its core theme or subject, she argued, was superior to writing that meandered or had no strongly defined center. One of the things I most respect about Steve Moakler is his firm grasp of aboutness. Moakler’s records aren’t flashy. They fall somewhere between the dusty Americana of Jason Isbell and the catchy, blue collar mainstream country of artists like Dierks Bentley and Thomas Rhett. His songs feel like radio-ready jams, but he performs them like they are left-of-the-dial gems. Not so surprisingly, several of his songs have been cut by major Nashville superstars—including Bentley himself, who plucked this album’s centerpiece “Riser” for his own album of the same name. Aboutness is something country fans and artists respect, because it can be hard to capture an idea fully in the space of three or four minutes. Moakler does it repeatedly on this songwriting masterclass of an album. There’s a cleanness to his songwriting, where every track has a thesis statement or core lyrical idea that it introduces immediately and then builds upon throughout the album. It’s the kind of writing that seems effortless on first glance, even though so much thought undoubtedly went into every line. 

166. Augustana - Augustana 

I miss the way that summers felt during college. In high school, the word “summer” referred strictly to July and August, plus the latter half of June. In college, it meant a full four-month stretch, from May through Labor Day. The result is that “summer” ended up feeling very much like two pieces of a larger whole. There was the actual summer part, in the sweltering heat of July and August. When I think of most of my favorite summer albums, they’re the ones that remind me of those months, and of windows-down drives and long days at the beach. But then there was the other piece: the “I just got home from college and I’m transitioning back into summertime freedoms” piece. Augustana reminds me of that part of 2011: an unseasonably cold and rainy spring, after a long and torturous winter. These days, I don’t even start thinking about summertime until Memorial Day. But the weird phenomenon of those lengthy college breaks was that you started acting like you were on summer vacation even when it was barely 50 degrees out and the Fourth of July was still the better part of two months away. This record, with its torrential bursts of roots-flecked pop-rock, makes me yearn to have that kind of freedom back again. You can still hear the last gasps of winter on some of the songs—especially the majestic “Hurricane.” But you can also hear the highway ripping past you on the zippy “Shot in the Dark,” or sense the wide-open August evening sky within the sprawl of “You Were Made for Me.” Of all the seasons, springtime is the one that has always had the least of a musical identity to me. People make summer albums, and people make winter albums, but not many people make springtime albums. Both here and on 2008’s Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt, Augustana mastered that unique but beguiling alchemy.

167. Sturgill Simpson - Sound and Fury

At some point, Sturgill Simpson went from country traditionalist to post-genre provocateur. On Sound and Fury, he seems to have no desire bigger than getting a rise out of people. He’s not picky with his targets either. The people who hailed him, upon the release of his early records, as a potential “savior” of country music. The award show posers who have either showered him with honors (the Grammys) or ignored him entirely (CMAs). The people who love his music. The people who hate his music. Everyone might as well be in the sights on Sound and Fury, a wild left turn of a record that gleefully douses Sturgill’s past successes in kerosene before flicking a match to burn them all to the ground. It’s maybe the most divisive record of 2019: an album hailed by some as a daring melding of genres and by others as a loud, tone-deaf, self-indulgent piece of trash. The best thing about it might be that it is ultimately both. There’s something definitively trashy about the songs, which sound like sleazy ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll and spend most of their lyrics in “old man yells at clouds” mode. But Sturgill presents this wild opus in a masterful way: slice-and-dice guitar riffs; earworm hooks; massive, pristine production; a trippy anime film that begs to make Sound & Fury the millennial version of Dark Side of Oz. Frankly, we need more artists willing to take big, bizarre swings like this one.

168. John Moreland - In the Throes

On the list of the most perfect songs written in the last 10 years, John Moreland’s “Gospel” is very near the top. It’s a simple song: just three verses sung soulfully over a simple acoustic guitar part. 12 lines of text; six rhymes; 137 words. But it’s a flawless piece of poetry: the rare song where every line hits as hard as the one before it, and where there’s not a single wasted word or phrase. It’s hard to pick a favorite line, or a favorite couplet, or a favorite verse, just because every piece of this song seems to contain so much wisdom and magic. It’s full of simple pleasures, like driving a car down a dirt road or finding your faith in great records from long before you were born. It’s full of great aspirations, like being as cool as the night air, or never giving up your dreams no matter what anybody says. It’s full of hints at the hardness of the world: “I wanna believe even when I know life don’t play fair,” Moreland sings at one point. The song is, essentially, his wish list: the things he wants out of life that he might not ever get; the goals he’s chasing that might never come to pass. But that’s life: you want; you hope; you dream; you chase. Maybe you fall short or maybe you hit the mark, but it’s the optimism of wanting things out of life—wanting more, and being willing to go after it—that ultimately makes life such a journey. “Gospel” is a perfect song about that journey, and In the Throes—and often deeply sad record that finds moments of uplift in the unflinching humanity of Moreland’s incredible songwriting—is a tribute to its many ups and downs.

169. Cary Brothers - Under Control

On Under Control, Cary Brothers wrote a song that always sounded to me like falling in love. “Belong” starts off as a slow, patient piano ballad, but then it turns into anything but patient. Midway through, the song accelerates like a racing heart and explodes into a firework show of emotion. “What I’d give for that first night when you were mine,” Brothers sings, bringing to mind those moments at the beginning of a relationship when you need the other person so badly that it feels almost dizzying. Brothers has always been good at capturing that kind of high romantic drama in his songs. Who You Are did it more consistently, but Under Control might be the purest distillation of his musical goals. When I interviewed him in 2018, Brothers told me about his love for ‘80s teen movies and the music that soundtracked them. Under Control plays like the soundtrack to a John Hughes movie that never was, ranging from new wave-y pop euphoria (“Someday”) to romantic introspection (“Can’t Take My Eyes off of You”) all the way to crushing isolation (“Ghost Town”). Brothers came up through the music business in the era of Garden State, The OC, One Tree Hill, Scrubs, and Grey’s Anatomy, so it’s fitting that his music always hearkens back to a time when any song could feasibly be used to score a coda montage at the end of the night.
170. The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever

The Hold Steady, to me, will always sound most like springtime on a college campus. The band’s music—big, grandiose, anthemic, jagged, unapologetic, a little drunken—makes them perfect for that kind of environment. When the parties spill out onto decks and lawns, or when the dorm room windows open wide and you can hear music cascading out of them, that’s when I fell in love with The Hold Steady. My first baptism into their music was Boys & Girls in America. But Heaven Is Whenever may have been the album that most informed my impression of what The Hold Steady could mean to me. This album dropped on May 4, 2010, but it received a vinyl-only release on Record Store Day that year, nearly a month early. I remember a rip circulating around in the final weeks of my freshman year of college, and I remember how those songs blended perfectly with that season. It was a surprisingly warm spring—especially in Michigan where “warm spring” sometimes doesn’t arrive until June. The balmy temperatures made Heaven Is Whenever come alive. The lilting slide guitars of “The Sweet Part of the City” called to mind the humid summer nights that were very soon to arrive, while big booming anthems like “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J” seemed to promise an epic season. “Hurricane J, she’s gonna crash into the harbor this summer,” Craig Finn sings on the latter; I was ready for the collision. Fans and critics largely looked upon this album lukewarmly, missing Finn’s more nuanced narrative writing, or longing for the evocative, E Street style keyboard licks of once-and-future band member Franz Nicolay. But I always loved Heaven Is Whenever for how well it did blistering, straight-ahead, summer-ready rock ‘n’ roll. It came along in a year that brought a string of albums in the same Springsteen-indebted wheelhouse: The Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang; Jesse Malin’s Love It to Life; Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor. Nine years later, when records like that are a whole lot harder to find, it’s tough for me not to look on Heaven Is Whenever with a sad fondness for what poptimism destroyed.

171. Charlie Simpson - Young Pilgrim

To a lot of people, Charlie Simpson is first and foremost a boy band pop star. To me, though, he’ll always be the sound of Young Pilgrim, his first solo LP. There’s something cool about a big pop star deconstructing his own musical identity and stripping it down to its barest essentials. Even the boy band stars that have achieved success as solo artists—the Justin Timberlakes, obviously, or the Harry Styles types, to a lesser extent—typically keep the big, bombastic production values of their band work. Simpson opted for something different: a largely spartan folk-pop album that combines his flare for big melodies with gorgeous, wistful, acoustic-driven arrangements. The result is an album with surprising range, substantial emotional punch, and smartly engaging lyrics. “We send people into space without ever really knowing/If they’re ever gonna come back down” he sings on the propulsive opener “Down, Down, Down”—just one of many thoughtful lyrics that stick with you long after the album is done. Repeatedly, Simpson finds solace in the things that pop stars often overlook: the natural world; the beauty of pastoral imagery; the sleepy suburbs. The result is that Young Pilgrim is often delightfully small scale, like the way the weather can chart the passage of time in a relationship, or like the way a sunset feels when you know it signifies a goodbye. But when Simpson’s flair for the dramatic rears its head, as on the massive album closer “Riverbanks,” the moments feel earned and emotionally resonant. 

172. Mat Kearney - Young Love

Mat Kearney started the decade as one of my favorite artists. His first two albums, 2006’s Nothing Left to Lose and 2009’s City of Black and White, captured something about growing up and leaving home that was deeply resonant to me when those records came out. In contrast, I couldn’t get through Kearney’s latest record—the blaring, synth-driven Top 40 play that was 2018’s CRAZYTALK. I still love Young Love, though, which somehow finds a way for Kearney’s maximalist pop impulses and idiosyncratic, hip-hop-tinged songwriting style to coexist. These songs are big, bold, and catchy, but they are also still wildly unique. “Ships in the Night” starts out sounding like an early Coldplay piano ballad, morphs into a beat-driven pop song, and still finds room for freewheeling verses that sound like stream-of-consciousness beat poetry. “She Got the Honey” and “Young Dumb and In Love” are as infectious as anything that was on the radio in 2011, but still carry Kearney’s one-of-a-kind authorial voice. “Seventeen” makes teenage pregnancy sound as sweeping and romantic as a song about a first kiss down on a beach. There’s even a song that sounds like Kearney xeroxed it wholesale from Springsteen’s Nebraska—a surprising left turn for an album that is usually as brightly colored as its yellow cover. Maybe Kearney was having an identity crisis and didn’t know where to go next. Maybe that same identity crisis is what ultimately led him to the shipwreck of CRAZYTALK. Here, though, he made his competing impulses and influences cohere into the perfect soundtrack to a youthful summer fling.

173. Ashley McBryde - Girl Going Nowhere

There’s something about being told you can’t do something that makes you push that much harder to achieve it. Based on the lyrics on Ashley McBryde’s Girl Going Nowhere—specifically the title track—she heard a lot of no’s over the course of her life. For some reason, we live in a world and in an age where people want to see other people fail. Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe social media and the anonymity of the internet made it worse. It certainly seemed like this decade was the “grab the popcorn to watch this person fall on their face” decade. In that context, it’s wonderful to see an artist like Ashley McBryde succeed. As I’m writing these words, she’s just walked away with a Best New Artist statue at the CMA Awards, which doesn’t necessarily mean a ton, but which is sure as hell a big middle finger to anyone who ever told her she couldn’t make it. That trophy will hopefully open big doors for McBryde in the new decade, but even exiting this one, she already feels like one of country’s most exciting voices. This album, with its punchy hooks (should-have-been hits like “Radioland” and “American Scandal”) and sharp, clever songwriting (“The Jacket” is one of the best examples of songwriting craft from the past five years, in any genre) shows off a serious amount of talent. I can’t wait to hear what’s next.

174. The Maine - Black and White

From what I’ve heard, the guys in The Maine are not super fond of this record. It was their sophomore LP and their major label debut, a move from the pop-punk minor leagues of Fearless to Warner Bros. The major label big wigs clearly exerted some influence, teaming the band up with big-name songwriters (including Butch Walker, on the infectious “Right Girl”) and smoothing over some of the brattier, more idiosyncratic elements that had characterized The Maine’s debut, 2009’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. But I love the hell of Black & White, largely as a product of when it came out. This album hit the internet probably two or three days after I started going out with the girl who I would end up marrying. It was the peak of summer, and I was spending a lot of time in the car, between my house, work, and her house. An album like this one—a glossy, impossibly catchy summertime soundtrack—was precisely what I needed, and The Maine delivered in spades. I still go back to little moments of that season when I play these songs back: the anthemic keys of “Growing Up” remind me of one of our first dates, to the local mini golf park, and I’m pretty sure “Saving Grace” was playing in the car one evening as we shared an extended kiss goodnight. The Maine would eventually evolve beyond this sound, and carefree, low-substance pop-rock albums don’t resonate with me now like they did back then. But as a sonic backdrop to the excitement of a brand-new summer romance, I could hardly have dreamed up a better album for that moment in my life. It’s still a summer running/driving staple, if only because it takes me back to a time when summers still meant endless possibility.
175. The Wallflowers - Glad All Over

One of the great musical tragedies of the past 25 years is the sidelining of The Wallflowers and Jakob Dylan. “One Headlight” was my first favorite song and The Wallflowers were my first favorite band. Their breakthrough album, 1996’s Bringing Down the Horse, was and is a masterpiece. The band’s fame couldn’t outlast the ‘90s, but Dylan still had a respectable run in the 2000s, releasing three more good-to-great Wallflowers records before teaming up with Rick Rubin for a 2008 solo debut called Seeing Things. In the 2010s, though, Dylan only made two records: Women + Country, a 2010 solo LP; and Glad All Over, a 2012 Wallflowers reunion. He’s been more or less dormant—at least as a recording artist—ever since. It’s a shame, because a lot of what made The Wallflowers such a magical band in the mid-to-late ‘90s is still intact here. They had a knack for instant-classic-sounding roots rock and for big, wide-open arrangements that captured the scope and sprawl of a (6th Avenue) heartache. At its best, Glad All Over captures the same sense of highway-bound yearning that I always got from Bringing Down the Horse. Starry-eyed beauties like “Love is a Country” and “Constellation Blues” are some of the decade’s dreamiest rock songs—expansive kaleidoscopic beauties that seemed to anticipate the sonic template that The War on Drugs would turn into critically-acclaimed gold on Lost in the Dream and A Deeper Understanding. Jay Joyce—on his way to becoming an A-list country producer thanks to his work with Eric Church—handled production duties, to notable effect. “Basically, we made a record the way people used to make records,” Joyce said of the recording process, which was defined by jam sessions, live recording, and instruments bleeding across all the mics. I wish more people still made records like that, but I’d settle for The Wallflowers making just one more.

176. David Ramirez - Fables

David Ramirez is a songwriter who writes smartly and vividly about a lot of things. On this album he pens a slew of insightful songs about falling in love and about the dynamics and priorities of relationships. On the follow-up, 2017’s We’re Not Going Anywhere, he dove into political waters with a deft hand and a ton of empathy. His greatest gift, though, may be chronicling the life of the mid-level touring musician. Rock music history has been dotted with tons of songs about the touring lifestyle and about the toll it can take on musicians, their families, their relationships, and their lives as a whole. But those types of songs have become less common as the myth of the rock ‘n’ roll star has begun to fade away. Ramirez brings them back. On his 2015 album Apologies, there’s a song called “Stick Around” where he asks the questions that any professional musician has to start asking at some point. Will I ever have a stable home, or a stable life? Will my relationships with my family suffer because I don’t see them enough? Will my nieces and nephews ever know me? Will I ever have a family of my own? On Fables, he follows those questions to their logical extreme: to where music, once a blessing, becomes a curse. “Be careful with your hobbies,” he sings on “Ball and Chain,” the album’s stirring and sad closing track; “They may define you someday.” It’s a surprisingly bitter point to end on, especially since the song contains a lyric about the “honesty” of confessional artists maybe being an illusion when their audiences are the ones that decide what the songs mean. But it’s also a welcome dose of candidness in a time when not enough music tells the truth. There are two sides to every sword, and there’s maybe no artist making music today that is better at conveying the dark side of that coin than David Ramirez.

177. Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials

Most of the time, the big-voiced theatrics of Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine turn me off. But on Ceremonials, the band’s weird, Baroque-leaning sophomore LP, Welch and company temporarily won me over. This album’s dark-as-night anthems—layered with dramatic reverb and packed with pounding tribal drums, droning bass, celestial chants, and Welch’s cavernous vocals at their foreboding, witchy best—make for a true one-of-a-kind epic. When she sings about “echoes of a city that’s long overgrown” in “Heartlines,” she sets the scene for this record and its almost Lord of the Rings-esque battlescape arrangements. On most of the record, Welch seems inclined to embrace the darkness. She sings about holy water and exorcisms on “Seven Devils,” and there’s literally a song called “No Light, No Light.” By the end of the album, she’s offering up her body to the arms of doom and caterwauling away like she’s Stevie Nicks at the end of “Gold Dust Woman.” But all the death and doom and gloom only seems more impressive when Florence + The Machine let the light break through, on colossal, cathartic pop songs like “Shake It Out” and “All This and Heaven Too.”  Welch says the wrote the former about shaking off a hangover; on Ceremonials, it sounds like an epic last stand against the literal forces of hell.

178. Motion City Soundtrack - Go

“It’s not a matter of time, it’s just a matter of timing.” Those words anchor “Timelines,” my favorite song on Motion City Soundtrack’s fifth album Go. In the band’s catalog, this album tends to get overlooked or even downright derided. It is less beloved, for instance, than this decade’s My Dinosaur Life, an album that I find to be considerably less thoughtful. In a lot of ways, Go is the most complex album in the MCS discography. It’s certainly the darkest, hanging most of its weight on themes of mortality and impermanence. There is a song here called “Everyone Will Die.” There’s another, called “Circuits & Wires,” about only being designed “to last a finite length of time.” A third track, “Happy Anniversary,” is about making preparations for death—from settling your accounts to telling your kids you love them. These are heavy ideas, and the songs that carry them often feel as exhausted and heartbroken as you would expect anthems about death to be. But Go isn’t an album about death, even if plenty of its songs are preoccupied with the subject. Rather, it’s an album about recognizing the temporary nature of life and about learning to take advantage of it. “I have a few years to go before I’m floating down the river again,” Pierre sings in the final track. How are you going to spend them? “Timelines” gives the answer, and it’s not about chasing down milestones or measuring yourself against the other people in your life. Your own timeline doesn’t have to match what your parents did, or what your friends are doing, or what the kids in your graduating class have planned. “It’s not a matter of time, it’s just a matter of timing.” Everyone’s timing is different, and everyone’s timeline is unique. Go is about writing your own story and not being afraid of being “too early” or “too late” for anyone else’s standards. After all, we’re all going to end up in the same place eventually: “fertilizing daffodils,” in the words of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. We’d might as well make the journey to that point as exciting and one-of-a-kind as possible.

179. Maren Morris - GIRL

In a lot of ways, GIRL is a sophomore slump. It’s less adventurous, less dynamic, less catchy, and all around less fun than Hero, the album that took Maren Morris from unknown to superstar. Even on weaker footing, though, Morris’s grasp of the poppier side of country is second to none. When she shoots for big and bombastic, it’s virtually impossible for her to miss. From the title track, with its jagged 2000s indie rock guitar riff, to “All My Favorite People,” a summertime barn-burner featuring Brothers Osborne, GIRL is at its strongest when it lets Morris wail away over songs that sound huge. The back half, packed with ballads about her marriage, is less immediately striking, though it still features two tracks—“The Bones” and “To Hell and Back”—that stand among the decade’s best and most innovative love songs. “The house don’t fall when the bones are good,” Maren sings in the former. She’s singing about her marriage, but she could also be singing about this album: a collection that succeeds in spite of those flaws, thanks to the tremendous talent of its creator.
180. Brothers Osborne - Port Saint Joe

To make the follow-up to their smash debut, Brothers Osborne retreated to the titular Port Saint Joe in Florida, holed up in a beachside house with producer Jay Joyce, and hammered out this record. While the album lacks the clear singles that made Pawn Shop such a meteoric debut, Port Saint Joe does carry an irresistible, laid-back, groove-driven feel that proves a couple things. First, Brothers Osborne are and will probably always be purveyors of summer soundtrack fare. Though the album dropped on 4/20, leadoff track “Slow Your Roll” was the first clear summer jam of 2018. Second, these guys are some of the very best musicians in any genre right now. Any list of the best guitar solos of the decade will probably exclude Brothers Osborne, if only because those lists tend to skew toward either veteran alternative rock bands or metal, ignoring genres like country entirely. But I’ll submit that any list of the best guitar solos of the decade is also incomplete without at least one John Osborne feature. The obvious nominee from this record is “Shoot Me Straight,” the stomping, shapeshifting lead single that spends a huge amount of its six-and-a-half minute runtime on guitar pyrotechnics. But even the ballads are big guitar showcases, with splendid production that makes them sound like vintage 1970s classics.

181. William Clark Green - Ringling Road

There’s a warm glow to the songs on Ringling Road that reminds me of ‘90s radio rock. That music—The Wallflowers, Goo Goo Dolls, Sister Hazel, Counting Crows, even Hootie & the Blowfish—is the stuff that made me fall in love with music in the first place. People mostly stopped making rock records like that in the 2000s, and finding them in the 2010s was nearly impossible. Ringling Road scratched that itch, packing massive hooks, lush acoustic guitars, and memorable lyrics into tracks like “Sticks and Stones,” “Sympathy,” and “Hey Sarah.” 20 years ago, these songs would have been massive hits. William Clark Green might have ended up on MTV singing with Bruce Springsteen, just like The Wallflowers did at the 1997 VMAs. Instead, Clark Green flew way under the radar this decade, releasing albums packed with radiant red dirt country songs that only got noticed by the Texas country crowd. It’s a shame, because Ringling Road has a lot of personality and heart—whether Clark Green is playing the part of Tom Waits-ian troubadour (see the twisted circus world of the title track), string-band frontman (the county fair rave-up that is “Creek Don’t Rise”), or heartbroken balladeer (the crushingly lonely “Still Thinking About You”).
182. Kip Moore - Slowheart

Springsteen has become a common reference point for rock artists and country artists alike over the past 15 years, and it’s not difficult to see why. His songs are deeply empathetic, his stories are detailed and haunting, and his arena-packing rock star status is something just about any artist would want to aspire to. Of all the artists that have emulated Bruce, though, few sound as innately like him as Kip Moore. On this album’s predecessor, 2015’s Wild Ones, Moore co-opted the tough-guy persona of Springsteen’s Born in the USA period, crafting an LP full of sexy, sweltering summer throwback songs. Slowheart is more personal and less innately nostalgic. It’s also the peak of Moore’s songcraft, showing off the same empathy, sense for detail, and knack for anthems that have long made Bruce a rock ‘n’ roll icon. The towering achievement is “Guitar Man,” a weathered five-and-a-half-minute closer about the sacrifices an entertainer makes to keep plugging along out on the road. But the rock ‘n’ roll anthems—big, catchy jams like “Sunburn,” “Bittersweet Company,” “Last Shot,” and the hit, “More Girls Like You”—are what make Slowheart so listenable and replayable. Fun, hooky, confident rock songs were hard to come by in the 2010s—especially the last few years. Thank goodness country guys like Moore decided to pick up the mantle of 1970s and ‘80s rock superstars.

183. The Wonder Years - The Greatest Generation

Throughout the 2010s, The Wonder Years were a band that a lot of people in my musical orbit absolutely adored. For the emo/pop-punk crowd, this band seemed generation-defining. They were literate but not snobbish, and so visceral in their tales of small-town suburban life that their songs took on an almost Springsteenian quality. For whatever reason, The Wonder Years mostly passed me by. I liked parts of their earlier “classics”—The Upsides and Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I Am Nothing—but the albums as a whole felt a little samey to me. And while their later albums yielded incredible high points like “Cigarettes & Saints,” I mostly found that this band didn’t speak to me in the way they did to a lot of other people who shared my general age and music tastes. The Greatest Generation was the exception. For one album, I understood why this band might become someone’s favorite band. I chalked it up to timing: The Greatest Generation came out two weeks after I graduated college, just as I was trying to get my sea legs out in the so-called “real world.” The weekend of my graduation, I remember feeling so much hope and excitement about my future. It only took a few weeks for that to drain away, replaced by the strain of trying to find a job in a broken economy and a city that didn’t feel like home. When I did find a job, it wasn’t at all what I wanted to do and I ended up taking it against my better judgment. 10 days, lots of stress, and a car accident later, I quit and started reconfiguring my life into the freelance writing career I have today. It was a tumultuous month, and I honestly can’t remember a time in my life where I felt lower. The Greatest Generation was a comfort during those weeks. The songs spoke of stagnation and sadness and rage. They saw frontman Dan Campbell taking shots at himself, questioning everything from his self-worth to his social anxiety to the decisions he’s made throughout his life that have led him to now. It’s a crushing album, and I have trouble listening to it—both for the raw admissions of the songs and the not-so-great memories it digs up of my own life. But man, at that crucial coming-of-age moment in my life, I’m not sure there was a more fitting album to have playing as the soundtrack.

184. The Hotelier - Goodness

Ask a Hotelier fan which of their albums is better and you might just inspire an existential crisis. Home, Like NoPlace Is There feels more important somehow, but Goodness might be the better album. Where Home almost felt designed to exist, favorably, in the lineage of emo classics like Clarity and Diary, Goodness completely builds its own world. The interlude tracks help, grounding the record in an escapist, scenic place somewhere under the moon and stars—but it’s the songwriting that seals the deal. There’s a yelping urgency to Home that made it incredibly relatable to the people who needed it at the time, but that makes it a little bit difficult to revisit. The songs and performances are so intense that listening to it means committing to an emotional cost. Goodness feels more patient. The Hotelier have learned how to let a song like “Opening Mail for My Grandmother” glide along without a big cathartic climax, knowing that the ellipsis only makes the song more haunting. It’s a lesson that serves them well throughout Goodness. Even when the big emotional climaxes do come—like the payoff in “End of Reel”—they feel inflected with maturity, grace, and optimism that you couldn’t necessarily hear on Home. It’s the kind of album we had less if in the 2010s, as rock bands became fewer and further between and as rock bands with multi-album catalogs became an endangered species. Too many bands broke up after album number one or two, but here, The Hotelier began stumbling toward that most sublime and elusive destination: maturity.

185. The Summer Set - Legendary

Sometimes, the most important thing with music is timing. Such was the case with Legendary, an album I heard for the first time maybe two weeks before I graduated from college. At any other time, I think I would have appreciated this album’s hooks but found it largely empty and unremarkable. But at that particular moment in my life, it sounded immaculate and prescient. The songs spoke of good times with friends and of sky-high hopes and dreams that somehow came true. They talked about friendships and loves that could be truly everlasting, truly legendary. They looked forward to the promise of someday and all the possibility it feels like it might hold when you’re young and naïve and optimistic. Coming to the end of my college journey, trying to cling to those legendary nights and naïve hopes when I knew both were running out, this album hit me with an emotional gut-punch that I didn’t expect from its neon pop-punk hooks. “I’ve spent too many nights watching How I Met Your Mother alone,” goes the title track; “Now I’m searching for my yellow umbrella, hoping I’ll take her home/Maybe I just want to be legendary/We all want to be legendary to somebody.” I had started my college years in that place: alone in my dorm room, watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother or binging Glee on Hulu, trying to drown out the sound of my own loneliness. I was exiting it with a small but tightknit friend group and a girlfriend I loved, and these songs seemed like they were meant to soundtrack my own series finale happy ending. I didn’t know that my immediate post-college life was going to offer a quick succession of ups and downs, or how quickly my college years would start to feel like memories from a different lifetime. But I love this record for how it takes me back to those last moments of sheltered naivete. The world looks different on the other side of college, and this album was one last snapshot before the leap of faith into the void.

186. Counting Crows - Underwater Sunshine

Most cover albums are a drag. They strand the artists you love in karaoke mode for 12-15 tracks and probably a year or more of recording and promotion time. There are exceptions, of course, but on average, cover albums are rarely worthy of repeat listens—let alone worthy of being called great. The highest praise that can be given to Underwater Sunshine is that it never once feels like a cover album—even though it absolutely is one. A big part of that is due to the song choices, which are inventive and adventurous. A few big artists (and obvious Crows influences) do get covered: Bob Dylan; Gram Parsons; Big Star; The Faces. But Adam Duritz is a record collector and a music obsessive like the rest of us, which means some of his picks skew pretty far under-the-radar. He even pulls out a Dawes song that, at the time of this record’s release, had only been released as part of a live Daytrotter session. The result is that Counting Crows get to take songs that most of their listeners won’t know and truly make them their own. “Untitled (Love Song)” blisters with intensity and buildup that is vintage Crows; “Like Teenage Gravity” burns like a late-night cut from the middle of Hard Candy; “Amie” and “Start Again” allow the band to flex the country-folk roots that have always lurked in their songs but never burst forth this clearly. There’s a pleasantly loose, tossed-off feeling to the whole endeavor—something that would bleed directly into the sound and atmosphere of the band’s next full-length, 2014’s Somewhere Under Wonderland. It’s an undervalued treat.
187. Weezer - The White Album

It’s possible that no band has ever been more hit-or-miss than Weezer. When they’re on, they can deliver some of the catchiest, wittiest pop-rock of any band ever. But they have so many misses—so many head-scratching lapses in judgement, and so many downright bad records—that you can really only approach their prolific output with skepticism. The White Album was their lightning-in-a-bottle moment this decade. Here, Rivers Cuomo and crew teamed up with producer Jake Sinclair (a former member of Butch Walker’s Black Widows), who made it his mission to help the band recapture the magic of their glory days. Sinclair used to play in Weezer cover bands, so he knew the DNA of the band’s revered classics—specifically The Blue Album—enough to know how it might translate to 2016. The result is a perfect drive-to-the-beach soundtrack, as hinted at by the photo of the lifeguard stand on the cover. The opening tracks—“California Kids” and “Wind in Our Sail”—are the kind of songs you play on blazing hot days when you just can’t get in the water fast enough. By the end of the record, the party is over: the closing track, “Endless Bummer,” is a break-up song that starts with the line “I just want this summer to end.” But for the 30 minutes before that, The White Album is one breezy, sunny hit after another. It’s the best album Weezer have made in 20 years.

188. David Nail - Fighter

There’s a song on this album called “Home” that is right up there with my very favorite songs of the last 10 years. It’s a duet, between David Nail and Lori McKenna, and it packs such a potent, truthful punch that I’m not sure I ever make it through the runtime without feeling a lump in my throat. The song itself is simple: a delicate piano figure and an acoustic accompaniment that evoke rolling plains and beautiful vistas as far as the eye can see. It’s not unusual for country artists to write tributes to their hometowns, but this one seems to go beyond that. It’s not surface-level observations, like the storefronts you pass by going through town, or the one stoplight that seems to be a fixture of every other song like this. Instead, it evokes the idea of home is a feeling first and a place second. “It’s where you’re from/It’s your oldest friend/And you think it will forget you when you go/But you know it will take you back in/It won’t fade away/It’ll watch you leave/And stay sitting there/Waiting in the fields, in the sky, in the stone/In your blood and your bones/Home.” When you’re young, you take your home for granted. It feels like it will always belong to you, and you to it. It’s only when you grow up and leave it behind—maybe temporarily, maybe for good—that you start to cherish all the little things you might have missed, like the way the air smells at the beginning of spring, or the colors of the leaves during the peak of fall. And if you stay away long enough, you start to feel like a stranger, wondering if home is still even home. This song captures all those things, and it’s incredibly beautiful and so comforting in the way that only home can be. On Fighter, David Nail conjures up a similar feeling repeatedly, singing songs about summer nights and loving parents and girls singing along with “Little Red Corvette” in the car. But “Home” is the album’s beating heart, and it’s the reason this album is on this list.

189. Sister Hazel - Lighter in the Dark

Growing up, Sister Hazel were one of my favorite bands in the world. Like a bunch of other ‘90s bands, I fell in love with their sound when I was a kid, only to lose track of them in the early days of the 2000s. When my brother taught me how to download music, circa 2003, I slowly started going back and unearthing the records I’d missed from bands I’d loved when I was seven or eight years old. Sister Hazel were one of those bands. I rediscovered their early 2000s releases (Fortress and Chasing Daylight) and then eagerly anticipated their new releases (Lift and Absolutely). Then, around when I graduated high school, they put out an album that did nothing for me. For awhile, I thought I’d outgrown them. Lighter in the Dark brought me back into the fold. It didn’t hurt that Sister Hazel were switching into full-on country mode just as my tastes were skewing as far in that direction as they would go. This band had always had country in their DNA, but they’d largely stayed toward the Petty/heartland rock side of the equation. This record flirts a little deeper with radio country, to generic-but-pleasant results (see “Karaoke Song” and “We Got It All Tonight,” the two obvious single plays). But it also features some extremely pleasing treats: “Fall of the Map” and “Something to Believe In” are both Heartbreakers-esque anthems (and both even contain Petty namedrops); “Almost Broken” and “Ten Candle Days” are potent, rootsy ballads; “Prettiest Girl at the Dance” is a dusty Eagles throwback; and “Run Highway Run” sounds like it could have been on a road trip mix right next to “All for You” back in 1997.

190. Dierks Bentley - The Mountain

There’s a moment on The Mountain where Dierks Bentley muses about leaving it all behind. The record’s final song, called “How I’m Going Out,” is about recognizing when it’s time to leave the party. It’s not something that many mainstream Nashville stars would even think about putting on an album—and not something most labels would let their top guys get away with. But it feels honest and well-earned at the end of The Mountain, an album about the long, winding journey of growing up. When you’re a kid, you tend to think of adults as people who have everything figured out, people who have all the answers. Once you actually become an adult, though, you recognize that growing up is a never-ending road. Here, Dierks reckons with that dichotomy: between being a husband and a father and being a reckless, fun-loving adventurer. There’s a tension on the record, between embracing the responsibility of the former and accepting the call of the latter. And the ultimate answer of the record is that, for a lot of us, our younger selves will always be a part of who we are. We might shed parts of the skin we used to wear, but we’ll always have a bit of that identity in our hearts and souls. But that clash—between adulthood and youth, between responsibility and freedom—seems to come to a head on “How I’m Going Out,” where Dierks envisions the day that he will hang up his guitar and be a family man full time. It’s a revelation that underlines the album’s themes: of split identity and aging and mortality and family. Eventually, whether you’re ready for it or not, the moment to step away from your youth—or from your dreams, or from a past version of yourself—comes along. The question the album seems to ask is whether you will fight the shift, or gracefully succumb to the tide. Most of today’s artists would fight like hell. There’s something graceful and respectable about Dierks and his willingness to be swept along by the current.

191. Lindsay Ell - The Project

The first time I heard Lindsay Ell was literally years before her Nashville label got off their asses and let her release a full-length album. Such is the bizarre buzz-building purgatory that up-and-coming country artists often must go through early on in their careers—especially if they lean mainstream and especially if they are female. I remember being intrigued by Ell early on, and by the sassy, hooky pop-country songs she was putting out as one-offs. All of those singles were good and a few of them—particularly “By the Way” and “All Alright”—are among the sturdiest should-have-been-hits of the decade. None of them prepared me for The Project, a blues-inflected, soulful collection of songs that takes its cues from John Mayer’s Continuum. Ell even re-recorded Continuum in full en route to crafting this album—a project she later released as The Continuum Project. Covering the entirety of Mayer’s magnus opus allowed Ell to see clearly what made those songs tick, but it also got all the imitation and hero worship out of her system before she set to work recording her own songs. The result is a somewhat fascinating piece of work: an album clearly crafted on the template of another (see “Castle,” an irresistible descendent of Mayer’s “Belief”) but that also very much has its own identity. Just check out “Just Another Girl,” a No Doubt-flavored rocker; or “Criminal,” a poppy hookfest with an edge of darkness. I assume Ell will only grow into her chops more on future releases, but for a record that was, frankly, a very long time coming, The Project didn’t disappoint.

192. Old Dominion - Happy Endings

What do you do when a girl breaks your heart and you try everything you can to get over her, only to find that every single song you write is still about the time you spent together? Happy Endings, the second record from the infectiously catchy country band Old Dominion is, I Think, about that idea. At very least, the best song here, called “Still Writing Songs about You,” is about being unable—or maybe subconsciously unwilling—to say goodbye to a dream girl. It’s the kind of song that underlines what really good mainstream pop-country can be: clever, witty, full of smart turns of phrase, and all wound around an infectious chorus and a descending guitar motif in a way that shows clear sense of craft. In the second verse, the narrator buys an acoustic guitar that “doesn’t know how you look, how you laugh, how you kiss me.” But the guitar ends up lending voice to songs about her anyway: “I’m on the edge of the bed and it’s way past two/And I’m stuck on a line ‘cause I know what rhymes with blue.” Old Dominion are really good at crafting songs like that: catchy and breezy songs that carry a little more emotional weight than meets the eye. That’s the case with “Written in the Sand,” about a girl who won’t quite commit to a relationship, and it’s definitely true of “So You Go,” about being so torn up post-breakup that everything you do to try to forget about her ends up feeling unsatisfying and hollow. The result is the good kind of radio country: remarkably well-wrought songs that just so happen to be some of the catchiest things in the world.

193. Death Cab for Cutie - Kintsugi

Ben Gibbard lays his marriage to rest in this gorgeously elegiac collection of songs. Critics and longtime fans largely wrote the album off—they wouldn’t start coming back into the fold until the follow-up, 2018’s Thank You for Today—but Kintsugi is a classic Death Cab LP. The songs ground their heartbreak in a sense of place. “Little Wanderer” captures the loneliness of walking through an airport solo when everyone around you seems to be kissing someone goodbye or sharing a welcome-back embrace. “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” plays like a careening car chase through a dimly-lit suburban neighborhood. “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life” rings like wedding bells at the church, still chiming even when the marriage they heralded has run its course. Just an album before this, on 2011’s lukewarm Codes & Keys, Gibbard’s lyrics were as happy and content as they’d ever been. Here, they almost overflow with sadness and memory, bitterness and regret, resignation and release. “I guess it’s not a failure we could help/We’ll both go on to get lonely with someone else.” Gibbard sings those words in “No Room in Frame,” and even in his sad, storied catalog, it’s hard to think of a more somber line.

194. Luke Combs - This One's for You

I wouldn’t have predicted back when Luke Combs’ first single “Hurricane” broke that the guy singing it would become one of the biggest stars in country music. But somehow, This One’s for You turned into an absolute juggernaut, notching multiple number one singles, and then charting even bigger hits off its 2018 deluxe reissue. Then again, Luke Combs has an affable everyman quality to him that makes him a natural country music star. He packs his songs with big radio-ready hooks, but he also has a mixture of pathos and humor, and a flare for slice-of-life narratives that take country tropes and make them a little more interesting. Said another way, his songs feel more real and honest than a lot of his overproduced pop-country contemporaries. On the rave-ups (summertime anthems like “Memories Are Made Of,” “Don’t Tempt Me,” or “When It Rains It Pours”), he sounds like an old college body regaling you with stories about good times. On the ballads (the thank-you speech that is the title track, or “I Got Away with You,” one of the decade’s cleverest love songs), he comes across as deeply earnest and humble. It’s a mixture that lends This One’s for You its surprising replayability. No matter what Luke Combs is singing about, it’s hard not to believe him.

195. Anberlin - Dark Is the Way, Light is a Place

What music from your life retains its magic for the longest? The most obvious answer is your formative music: the albums and songs you listen to when you first start falling in love with music and forming your tastes. But I think you also have to point to the music you hear around the beginnings of the significant relationships in your life. I can’t think of another reason that Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place—typically regarded as the weakest record in the Anberlin oeuvre—has long been my favorite of their work. Dark came out in the fall of 2010, and I relate it most strongly to long weekends cloistered away in my dorm room with my girlfriend. Falling in love that deeply made music sound sweeter and more euphoric, like the songs were trying to keep pace with the way may heart would quicken when she was around. This album was an example of that, and a perfect one. Anberlin charted an odd arc throughout their career, rotating between skyscraping faith-driven rock music, hard-edged pop-punk, and ultra-hooky 90s-informed alt-rock. I never cared much for their more aggressive tendencies, and while their spiritual tilt sometimes led to truly thrilling, larger-than-life creations (see “(*Fin)”), I always preferred Anberlin in their soft-rock incarnation. Songs from previous albums, like “Breathe” and “Naïve Orleans,” showed me how much this band could do with a straight-ahead radio rock sound. Dark is the only album where they ever clicked into that vibe throughout, and it’s glorious. Fans called the songs repetitive and decried the lyrics for lacking the depth of previous releases, but the tracks themselves pack so much melodic and sonic punch that it’s hard to care. Songs like “Impossible,” “Take Me (As You Found Me),” and “Art of War” are sweeping arena-filling confections that wouldn’t have been out of place on the radio circa 1998. “Take Me (As You Found Me)” almost tracks as a Goo Goo Dolls anthem, circa Dizzy up the Girl. The sweep suits them, and it suited me at the time. When you’re falling head over heels in love, you want your songs to sound this big, this grand, this romantic, this hopeful. No wonder I pulled this album up on my iPod for so many walks across campus to class.

196. Switchfoot - Vice Verses

Switchfoot came into this decade as one of my favorite and most formative bands. They’re exiting it with a streak of mediocre albums under their belts and a question floating above their band name of whether they can make music relevant to my life anymore. The last time they truly seemed to push themselves—the last time they seemed genuinely engaged in their art—was 2011, with this album. Vice Verses reaches for what I once thought this band could be: the post-millennial U2. “Where I Belong,” the epic closing track, grapples heavenward with one of the decade’s most convincing rock ‘n’ roll stadium plays. “Afterlife,” “The Original,” and “Dark Horses” are crunchy rock ‘n’ roll songs with grit, rhythm, and charisma. “Souvenirs” and “Restless” are yearning ballads with a spiritual bent. “Selling the News” and “Blinding Light” are socially-conscious commentary. Each of these modes mimics something that Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. have done in the past—even if the album Vice Verses most resembles is How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, one of U2’s less-beloved works. After this record, Switchfoot began to chase unsatisfying pop trends. Here, for one last time, they seemed to believe in using rafter-reaching rock ‘n’ roll to deliver the message they wanted to send.

197. Striking Matchings - Nothing but the Silence

Trends come and go in the music industry, but there will always be something electric about a talented boy-girl duo. Sometimes it’s a sexual tension thing; sometimes it’s just two really great voices melding together in a way that sounds pre-destined. With Striking Matches, the X-factor isn’t so much the voices as the guitars. The two musicians that make up Striking Matches—Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis—are both distinct guitar-playing talents. Zimmerman has a knack for incendiary slide guitar solos. Davis is more of a backwoods finger-picker. They’re also accomplished songwriters, having been tapped to write many of the boy-girl duets featured on the 2010s primetime soap opera Nashville, and they’re also accomplished singers, capable of selling the emotional intimacy of ballads like “When the Right One Comes Along” or “God and You” even when their guitar amps are turned down. But it’s on the songs where all their elements come together that Striking Matches really spark, like the runaway-train opener “Trouble Is as Trouble Does” or the mighty crescendo of “Make a Liar out of Me,” where Zimmerman rips one of the five or so greatest guitar solos of the decade. It says a lot that T. Bone Burnett, a man with a storied eye for talent in the country and roots music scenes, agreed to produce Nothing but the Silence.
198. The Alternate Routes - Nothing More


The Alternate Routes were, at one point, among the most promising bands in rock ‘n’ roll. After the rafter-shaking arena anthems that packed 2010’s Lately, I would have bet on them growing a huge following—or, at least, huge by “rock band in the 2010s” standards. Nothing More isn’t as wall-scaling in its ambitions, but it is still a grandiose, emotional piece of work that is worthy of a much larger audience than it reached. The Alternate Routes have been sporadic in their activity since, falling victim to the streaming era pitfall of releasing a single every year or so but never building to anything more substantial. It’s a shame, given this band’s clear, shining talent. But it’s also a factor that has given this album extra gravity for me since it came out. When the bands you love stop releasing music regularly, you cling that much harder to the music they’ve already made for you. Nothing More is one such album—an album packed with empathy (the title track) and romance (the Cusack-on-the-lawn-worthy “Stereo”) and memories so vividly drawn that you feel like you’ve been transported right into them (the sublime “Gil”). This record was funded by a crowd-funding campaign, and suffice to say that I am ready to donate to the next one.

199. Phillip Phillips - The World from the Side of the Moon 

Following American Idol back in the day was a blast. I have very fond memories of watching that show with my mom throughout my middle school and high school years—picking our favorites, deploring America’s bad choices, celebrating the victories. The season where Phillip Phillips won was the last season I followed, and I followed it only passingly. Once I went off to college, the amount of TV I watched at all diminished greatly. I certainly wasn’t tuning in two nights every week for American Idol. But I caught bits and pieces of the 2011 season, and once I was home for the spring and summer, I was right back to watching the show with my mom. We weren’t wowed by Phillip Phillips on TV. He seemed timid to the point of being unskilled, and the singers he ended up beating were pretty unanimously superior to him. But when Phillips released The World from the Side of the Moon, it was the first album from an American Idol winner to wow me. Where most past Idol contestants spent their debut albums reaching for generic pop or rock trends of the time—clearly a bad move, based on how much anyone cares about those albums now—World combined influences like Dave Matthews Band, Damien Rice, and O.A.R. for a record that felt surprisingly well-suited to the voice singing the songs. Phillips was never the “best” singer, but his voice shines on songs like “Home,” the Mumford & Sons-style coronation single; or “Gone, Gone, Gone” a late-summer breakup anthem that deserved more airplay than it got. Phillips’ later albums lost the charm of this one, and Idol hasn’t been an important part of my life for 10 years. But The World from the Side of the Moon remains a deeply enjoyable album from an artist who probably could have accomplished more outside of the mainstream machine.

200. Stars - There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light

I’ve always liked Stars, but they’ve never been a band I loved. They have individual songs that bowl me over: “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” is an obvious classic; “Dead Hearts” and “Wasted Daylight,” the first two tracks from 2010’s The Five Ghosts, are up there with the best opening one-two punches of the decade. But their albums usually lose me somewhere along the way. At least, that was the case up until There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light. This record bottles up everything that makes Stars special—the alchemy of the male-female vocal tradeoff; the musical balance between pop and folk and indie and rock ‘n’ roll; the songs about relationships that, for whatever reason, just can’t last—and gives them their most propulsive presentation ever. With marquee production and huge hooks—see the pseudo title track “Fluorescent Light,” an epic about why new adventures are so important for keeping love alive—this record makes Stars sound vital, yearning, hopeful, and genuinely brand-new again. This band has always excelled at writing complex songs about complex people. But There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light is largely very simple. It’s a record about the ever-present threat of loneliness—whether it’s in your head or in your real life—and it’s a record about finding ways to fight that loneliness, no matter what it takes.