by Felix Rodriguez
All writing is autobiographical, writing about culture doubly so. There is no way to distill the past decade into 10 essential albums without egregious oversight and omission. There are some artist and albums that I am not equipped to write about, there are also artists that have had their critical moments in the sun. They will not be written about here. That is okay, beautiful even. Remember that the truth is in the telling. Enjoy.
2010: Titus Andronicus – The Monitor
Urgent. Desperate. Sprawling. Titus Andronicus (the Shakespeare play) and Titus Andronicus (the band) are both messy and necessary explorations of the darker aspects of humanity. The former focusing on the bloody revenges of a Roman General coming home from a campaign against the Goths and the latter a punk rock exorcism of the demons haunting bandleader Patrick Stickles. With The Monitor, Titus Andronicus examine our struggles with ourselves, each other, and the world through the Civil War narrative conceit. It’s big and unwieldy. It’s also incredibly intimate and vulnerable. The dichotomy at the heart of Titus Andronicus can be found in the final moments of “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” in which the band chant “YOU WILL ALWAYS BE A LOSER” over triumphant bombast which resolves with a musical collapse into “AND. THAT’S. OKAY.”
Essential Tracks: “A More Perfect Union”, “Four Score And Seven”, “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future’”
Runners Up: Best Coast – Crazy For You, Janelle Monae – The Archandroid
2011: Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972
As of this writing it is the Winter Solstice. The Sun having retreated as far away as it will, leaving me to the hum of mechanical warmth, that dull non-sound of a heater that you choose to no longer hear blanketing everything as if in snowfall. Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 washes over in a similar fashion. It snaps, hisses, and swirls sounds in and around the listener until it becomes overwhelming. Hold your breath. Swelling into and out of focus, melodies repeat as refractions. Keep holding. A faint hiss becomes the lynchpin of a composition, anchoring the listener as Hecker chops and discards chordal phrases. Hold your breath until you can’t. Hecker releases the tension and you can suddenly feel that the warmth is returning. Summer is closer today than it was yesterday. Breathe.
Essential tracks: “No Drums”, “In The Fog II”, “In the Air III”
Honorable Mentions: Raleigh Moncrief – Watered Lawn, James Blake – James Blake
2012: Flying Lotus – Until The Quiet Comes
Good poetry is an indulgence; the pleasure of reveling in sounds discovered and heard. Flying Lotus is a poet in this sense, exploring and tweaking timbres until the “feeling” is right of every single sound as if it were the final piece of his magnum opus. It’s impossible to listen to his work without seeing that giant enigmatic grin of his. In contrast to the often cacophonous Cosmogramma this record channels the jazz of his aunt Alice Coltrane, less Hard Bop and more Afro-Futurism. Listening to Until The Quiet Comes feels like Flying Lotus just let you in on a secret and it leaves you dazed. Like an attempt to explain a dream, fragmentary details become monoliths.
Essential Tracks: “Getting There”, “Tiny Tortures”, “All The Secrets”
Honorable Mentions: Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan, Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
2013: Jai Paul – Jai Paul
Did Jai Paul leak his own record in 2013 or did somebody really steal his laptop, upload 16 songs with album art, and collect thousands of dollars from a fake bandcamp? The question remains but either way Jai Paul managed to do a very difficult thing in the era of the internet: become myth. It’s been 6 years since that leak and I have thought about this record every few months since. Jai Paul’s music is a collage of pop melodies from 40 years ago production and composition that is undeniably modern. The rest of the music world seems to have the same sentiment considering how many artists have chased this sound in the intervening years.
(The album was ‘officially’ released in 2019)
Essential Tracks: “Str8 Outta Mumbai”, “jasmine – demo”, “BTSTU – demo”
Honorable Mentions: Deafheaven – Sunbather, Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap
2014: D’Angelo – Black Messiah
Following the murder of Mike Brown, protesters set fire to a gas station. The community had had enough. His killing was not unique among black people or even the city of Ferguson. Black bodies have always been feared and their voices silenced. They had had enough. The world was going to pay attention this time. D’Angelo, like the rest of the world, was shaken to his core, prompting him to come out of retirement and finishing the most powerful record of his career. The search for any salvation from this hell world is at the heart of Black Messiah. Beyond the album’s thematic weight D’Angelo assembles some of the best performances of the decade for this record. This entire write up could just be about Pino Palladino’s bass playing and it would still be the record of the year. It’s that good.
Essential Tracks: “1000 Deaths”, “Really Love”, “Betray My Heart”
Honorable Mentions: Madlib & Freddie Gibbs – Piñata, Iceage – Plowing Into the Field of Love
2015: Kamasi Washington – The Epic
The first time I heard The Epic I cried. It was specifically three minutes into the song “The Magnificent 7” that I started to tear up. Not from melancholy or despondence but rather from sheer awe. In a record full of virtuoso performances, this song represents its peak. By minute five Kamasi Washington is pushing the limits of his instrument. His performance is reaching a fever pitch, you can hear Kamasi’s lungs about to burst from exhaustion. He is screaming “I’m here! I’m alive?! I’M ALIVE! DO YOU SEE THIS?!” It is jagged and terrifying and overwhelming and victorious. The Epic is perhaps the most appropriately named album of the decade.
Essential Tracks: “The Magnificent 7”, “The Rhythm Changes”, “Seven Prayers”
Honorable Mentions: Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Hop Along – Painted Shut
2016: Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
“How you tell a truth to a crowd of white people?” Depending on how closely you want to look at the events of our world it is reasonable to come to the conclusion that we are utterly fucked. We were utterly fucked well before 2016, but that marked the year it became slightly more difficult to ignore that fact. Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade is a rumination on survival tactics in an utterly fucked world. “When I’m sober I might testify that this world has fallen out of place,” he raps with a soft urgency. Speaking like someone passionately explaining truths that can only be found after smoking a blunt on a couch on a hot afternoon after narrowly avoiding getting harassed by cops.
Essential Tracks: “4r Da Squaw” , “Rope (feat. SiR) // rose gold” , “Bday (feat. Deacon Blues & Kari Faux)”
Honorable Mentions: Big Thief – Masterpiece, Frank Ocean – Blonde
2017: Jamila Woods – HEAVN
It is difficult to be joyous. Jamila Woods finds joyous ways to tell her history and successfully situates it within the broader diaspora. Throughout HEAVN, Woods borrows motifs and melodies from other works and makes them her own. The title track is a fantastic riff on a Cure song by way of gospel instrumentation. It becomes a celebration of love in spite of the very literal forces that separated families for generations (and continue to do so). Consider it musical reparations for the decades of profits white musicians have made on the backs of black musicians. There is a constant grappling with alienation throughout HEAVN, the idea that “just cause I’m born here don’t mean I’m from here.” Perhaps the greatest gift Jamila Woods gives to the world are her healing mantras of self love. Despite the systematic oppression and alienation Jamila grapples with, she remains empowered: “I’m not lonely, I’m alone. And I’m holy by my own.”
Essential Tracks : “VRY BLK (feat. Noname)” , “HEAVN” , “HOLY”
Honorable Mentions: Milo – Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! , Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
2018: Smino – NOIR
A year ago I wrote a piece for this website reviewing the music of 2018. My personal favorite category I wrote about was “2018’s 2017 album of the year”. The conceit was that I gave myself permission to write about an album that slipped passed me and I discovered the following year. Considering I wrote quite a few words about quite a few albums from 2018 I thought it best to repeat that category here. Noir is 2019’s 2018 Album of the Year. Smino’s manipulation of spoken English is a masterclass in double meaning. This is one of the records that is difficult to write about because to show the “trick” one has to hear the lyrics spoken. For example: on “L.M.F.” Smino sing/raps, “Said she Rafiki, you a lion, Mufasa… The Mary got me merry, now I’m singing like Mary Mary.” Two fantastic bars on their own, but the full effect kicks in when you hear the effortless delivery.
Essential Tracks: “L.M.F.” , “KLINK” , “Hoopti”
Honorable Mentions: Phony Ppl – mozaik , Bad Bunny – X 100PRE
2019: Chuck Sutton – i know what i’m doing
I’m about to make the most 2019 sentence I’ve ever typed so bear with me: I discovered my favorite record of the year from watching a youtube music production tutorial about remaking Kanye West’s “Wolves” using only wolf sounds. The video was pretty entertaining, and the dude making it clearly knew his music production so I followed him on twitter and saw this video that made me cry with laughter (sorry for making you watch this so many times Sarah).
Then when he finally released a single from i know what i’m doing and it was legitimately good I was thrown off. After one listen to “Chess Bling” I knew Chuck Sutton could be a force to be reckoned with. It’s an extremely tightly written song with enough ear candy to keep you coming back for repeat listens. The rest of the record is just as tightly written, introducing and leaving new ideas with reckless abandon.
Essential Tracks: “Chess Bling” , “133 (Ode to Freshman)”, “Only One”
Honorable Mentions: GoldLink – Diaspora, ((( O ))) – ((( 1 )))
Felix Rodriguez is an Oklahoma musician and concert booker that spends more time thinking about music than not. He makes music under the moniker Open/Honest.
Be sure to check out our contributors’ Best of the Decade music poll. (coming very soon!)