So, it turns out I like music too. Quite a bit actually. And, since I’ve taken a break for a few months from watching movies to write a novel, I’ve had ample opportunity to listen to a lot of music. Below are my favorite albums by decade, just for fun.
1. Pet Sounds (The Beach Boys, 1966)
As of this writing, The Beach Boys’ epochal Pet Sounds turned fifty years old a few months ago. Fans and critics alike have waxed poetic about the record that supposedly inspired Sgt. Pepper’s and set the bar too high even for Boys’ mastermind Brian Wilson to ever top, so half a century later it begs the question: is there even anything left to be said about these thirteen tracks of pop perfection? The short answer is, of course, probably not. The sheer impact it has had on pop music since is irrefutable, but what is perhaps most astounding is just how fresh it all still sounds today. There’s a reason “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” continue to soundtrack TV show, movies, and weddings. Nothing has quite replaced the pure, childlike joy in hearing those heavenly melodies, horn bursts, gentle strings, and lush production that swirled it all together.
2. Revolver (The Beatles, 1966)
Released only a few months after Pet Sounds, Revolver is The Beatles’ answer to The Beach Boys’ boundary-pushing pop. And, rather than simply offer their own take on the orchestral touches of Wilson’s pocket symphonies, the Fab Four obliterated the very boundaries that defined pop music with their seventh record that anticipated just about every sub-genre explored since. While Revolver lacks the cohesion of Pet Sounds (the reason, for this writer, why it sits one position below the other), it makes up for it in individual bursts of innovation that tested the limits of studio production (not enough can be said of the contributions of the “fifth Beatle,” producer George Martin). There are the strings on “Eleanor Rigby,” the sitar and tabla on “Love You To,” the blasting horns on “Got to Get You into My Life,” and the studio tricks that gave the world the psychedelic trip that is “Tomorrow Never Knows” – possibly the Beatles’ very best song.
3. The Velvet Underground & Nico (The Velvet Underground, 1967)
Apparently, everyone who bought one of the meager 30,000 copies sold of The Velvet Underground & Nico when it was first released started a band. But, why would anyone even want to try if they could just listen to this? If studio innovation was the name of the game in the sixties, then no conversation would be complete without The VU’s classic debut. It’s the raucous yin to the melodious yang of Pet Sounds and Revolver. Musically, the album is all over the place. The dreamy haze of “Sunday Morning” is abruptly interrupted by the pounding piano and driving riff of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” which then fades into the gentle ballad “Femme Fatale.” Then, there’s the eastern influenced “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” sandwiching the bluesy “Run Run Run.” And yet, somehow it all meshes into one compelling whole.
4. Five Leaves Left (Nick Drake, 1969)
Perhaps not as revolutionary as some of the decade’s heavy hitters, Nick Drake’s debut album Five Leaves Left is nonetheless a gorgeous set of folk tunes featuring the singer’s hypnotizing voice, his finger-picking guitar playing, and a host of beautiful accompaniments. Though Drake is likely best known for the sparse, acoustic songs on Pink Moon, the tracks on Five Leaves Left benefit from these accompanying instruments that give them a fuller sound. The plunking piano on opener “Time Has Told Me” gives it a winsome Americana feel, while the strings on “River Man” augment the haunting lyrics and spellbinding riff. And, the sweeping cello and rhythmic congas on stunner “Cello Song” complement some of Drake’s most complex guitar work to create the very sound of winter melting into spring.
5. A Love Supreme (John Coltrane, 1965)
A deeply spiritual work, a wordless poem to a creator who grants his creation the ability to create, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is also a phenomenal musical statement. Coltrane’s saxophone wiggles and worms its way through the comforting atmosphere his quartet establishes with a piano, bass, and drum set. Though Coltrane maintains the album is a suite in four parts, each part is distinct and enjoyable in its own right. The opening “Acknowledgement” serves as a promising invitation to the rhythms of “Resolution” and “Pursuance” which in turn give way to the somber, yet majestic closer “Psalm.” Jazz as a genre may be a turn-off for lovers of studio pop, but A Love Supreme is one of the rare jazz records that rises above its dismissive designation.
6. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan, 1965)
Dylan had already betrayed the folk purists with Bringing It All Back Home, but Highway 61 Revisited signaled he’d never again look back. He embraced the electric guitar with confidence and delivered a track list of thumping blues songs that have come to define him as an artist. With its barroom piano backed by Dylan’s signature harmonica and poetic lyrics opener “Like a Rolling Stone” may be the singer’s best known song, but the piano stomp of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” or the ear-splitting whistle on the title track or the rhythm of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” or the acoustic middle finger of slow burner “Desolation Row” are all worthy of the musician’s best work.
7. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Charles Mingus, 1963)
Charles Mingus may not have been a peach to work with, but he certainly led his eleven-piece band to play their hearts out on the exciting jazz composition that is his album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Mingus’ greatest record is jazz music for people who don’t like jazz music. It shares more similarities with classical music than it does with traditional jazz, but in that way it also blew the doors open for the experimentation that followed. Each of the four tracks is a spectacular piece of the whole, but the final three movements – comprising the eighteen-minute “Medley” – boast a fury of instrumentation at an exhilarating pace until Mingus brings his band back down again just in time for the suite to finish.
8. Abbey Road (The Beatles, 1969)
If Revolver is touted for its eclecticism, Abbey Road – the final record The Beatles recorded together – is downright fractured by comparison. And, if the hodgepodge track-listing that squishes Lennon’s hippie trip “Come Together,” Harrison’s tender ballad “Something,” and McCartney’s goofy “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” together is strange enough, make sure to check out the sixteen-minute medley comprised of nine seemingly incomplete songs, tonally disjointed, but strung together to form one of the most exciting pieces in recorded music history. Abbey Road may bear witness to impending disbanding of The Beatles, but it also proves that at the revolutionary band’s bickering worst they were still some of the best in the industry.
9. Blonde on Blonde (Bob Dylan, 1966)
After Highway 61 Revisited, where else could Bob Dylan take his music? Its follow-up Blonde on Blonde revealed he was willing to get louder, weirder, and longer. As one of recorded music history’s first double albums, Blonde on Blonde is about as varied as Dylan’s music gets. There’s the marching-band, stoner anthem “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” the harmonica-tinged balladry of “Just Like a Woman,” the slow-burning closer “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” to give “Desolation Row” a run for its money, and Dylan trying his hand at radio pop with “I Want You.” The lesser-known tracks are great too, but what really elevates the singer’s seventh album above many others is the inclusion of the hypnotic masterpiece “Visions of Johanna” – easily Dylan’s best song featuring his greatest poetic lyrics.
10. Odessey and Oracle (The Zombies, 1968)
If no one could quite match the delightful chamber pop The Beach Boys mastered with Pet Sounds, the short-lived band The Zombies sure gave it their best shot with their second studio album Odessey and Oracle. The record’s artwork is the perfect picture of the sound of the music contained within. It’s an album of kaleidoscopic tunes featuring heavenly harmonies, catchy melodies, and a host of orchestral instrumentation. Highlights include the sunniest song ever written about a lover being released from prison with opener “Care of Cell 44,” the congas accompanying the lovely chorus on “Changes,” and the sugary sweetness on piano-led “This Will Be Our Year.”
Honorable Mention: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles, 1967), Bringing It All Back Home (Bob Dylan, 1965), Are You Experienced (The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967), Forever Changes (Love, 1967), Otis Blue (Otis Redding, 1965), Beggars Banquet (The Rolling Stones, 1968), Astral Weeks (Van Morrison, 1968)
1. Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan, 1975)
It may not be a decade-defining record in the vein of Marvin’s, Bowie’s, or The Clash’s best albums, but Blood on the Tracks features Dylan at his best; folksy rock led primarily by an acoustic guitar tinged with harmonica, piano, and organ as well as his very best songwriting. These ten tracks collectively comprise his loveliest recorded songs. It’s well-known that Dylan denies any autobiographical connection, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s the granddaddy of break-up albums, and yet refreshingly the anecdotes are poetic, subtle, and even fair – it takes two to make a relationship sour, and no one understands that better than whoever the protagonist is of Dylan’s best album.
2. What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye, 1971)
An ambitious song cycle, a Motown singer’s artistic leap forward, an ugly yet honest state of the union – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On has been called many things, but what is less frequently commented on today is just how gorgeous the music is. Lush production including layers of warm strings and Marvin’s soothing voice give these nine songs their sheen, and Marvin’s insistence on slowing things down moved R&B in exciting new directions for the following decade.
3. IV (Led Zeppelin, 1971)
Like other beloved albums on this list, Led Zeppelin’s fourth and best record is often bogged down by legend and purported cultural significance. But, like those other great albums, IV is ultimately about the songs. Everything Zeppelin did well or wanted to accomplish with their music, they did best here. Eight solid tracks, no filler, with gargantuan riffs (“Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll”), dizzying mysticism (“The Battle of Evermore,” “Stairway to Heaven”), and one iconic drum line that’s become the backbone for many a hip-hop beat (“When the Levee Breaks”).
4. Marquee Moon (Television, 1977)
One of the greatest things Television achieved with their classic debut was the increasing irrelevance of genre categorization. Was it punk? Was it rock? Was it post-punk (whatever that even meant)? Or was it pop, as lead singer Tom Verlaine once asserted? This is perhaps why Marquee Moon has outlived every punk record of that era; it never feels like a big statement or an archaic cry against the establishment. Instead, it lives on as a testament to the versatility and power of the guitar as its songs oscillate from hook-driven bursts of energy (“See No Evil,” “Friction”) to extended solos resembling something like jam sessions (“Marquee Moon,” “Torn Curtain”).
5. Innervisions (Stevie Wonder, 1973)
Like What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions is another indictment of urban America, but here it’s grittier, funkier, and more scathing. The artist tackles racism (“Living for the City”), drug abuse (“Too High”), and one unpopular president (“He’s Misstra Know-It-All”) throughout these nine tracks that might lead one to wonder if there are many musicians more talented than Wonder. He’s on the keyboard, percussion, harmonica, and several other instruments on nearly every song as if he were a one-man band. R&B hasn’t sounded this good since.
6. Low (David Bowie, 1977)
It’s probably safe to say Bowie’s personal all-time low marked a career high for the chameleon of rock. Constantly redefining his image and sound, the man’s eleventh album is certainly his most interesting transitional work. The complex, energetic pop songs that make up Low’s first half added a few great tunes to the Bowie canon (particularly “Sound and Vision” and “A New Career in a New Town”), but it’s the second half that delivers some of the artist’s most ambitious, forward-thinking work – a suite of electronic ambient-pop with Brian Eno’s fingerprints all over it.
7. London Calling (The Clash, 1979)
Music that scans the social climate and finds rampant drug abuse, political upheaval, widespread unemployment, and racism should be this eclectic in nature. The Clash threw ska, rockabilly, light jazz, reggae, and a dollop of good pop sensibility into their own version of punk rock and came up with one of the most interesting song-for-song records of all time. From the apocalyptic opener and title track to the proto-jangle pop of “Lost in the Supermarket” to the driving “Clampdown” to one of pop music’s finest tunes “Train in Vain,” London Calling has a little bit for everyone.
8. Pink Moon (Nick Drake, 1972)
Gone were the guest musicians that filled the cavernous spaces on Nick Drake’s first two albums; with Pink Moon – sadly the singer’s last – there’s nothing but the man’s melancholy voice and his strumming guitar (save for one delightful piano melody on the title track). Pink Moon, then, is pure folk, brief songs with poetic titles and lyrics. Even though those close to him argued otherwise, it’s difficult to listen to the artist’s swansong and not hear a man on the verge of suicide. That heartbreaking reality doesn’t take away from the music, however, which is beautiful in its spare arrangements.
9. Off the Wall (Michael Jackson, 1979)
From the propulsive percussion-led “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” to the slinky guitar riff on “Rock with You” to the blaring horns on “Workin’ Day and Night” and “Get on the Floor” to the freaky tempo changes of the title track that foreshadowed “Thriller,” Michael Jackson’s breakthrough record rarely lets you catch your breath. And, those are only the first five songs! Stick around for the second half too and you’ll catch the syrupy melodrama of “She’s Out of My Life,” the spot-on Stevie cover “I Can’t Help It,” and the burn-the-house-down track to close out the album. If Off the Wall doesn’t get you on the floor, you might want to check your pulse.
10. Another Green World (Brian Eno, 1975)
A major influence on not only Bowie’s best album, but also on the future of electronic music as a whole, Brian Eno’s Another Green World manages to create just that: another world entirely. From the buzzing opener “Sky Saw” to the haunting, lingering closer “Spirits Drifting,” the record hops back and forth from more traditionally structured pop tracks (though no less weird) like the winsome “St. Elmo’s Fire” (probably Eno’s best song) or “Golden Hours” and ambient soundscapes that feature some stunning electronic minimalist instrumentation that has remarkably lost none of its appeal in the digital age of music we live in today.
Honorable Mention: Journey in Satchidananda (Alice Coltrane, 1971), Ege Bamyasi (Can, 1972), Rumours (Fleetwood Mac, 1977), All Things Must Pass (George Harrison), Unknown Pleasures (Joy Division, 1979), Led Zeppelin III (Led Zeppelin), On the Beach (Neil Young, 1974), Acabou Chorare (Novos Baianos, 1972), Fear of Music (Talking Heads, 1979)
2010s (so far)
1. Channel Orange (Frank Ocean, 2012)
A lot of people thought the rise of mp3s and eventually digital streaming would signal the end of the album era. And, to be sure, the album as an art form is certainly less important than it was, say, in the seventies, but then full-length records like Frank Ocean’s debut come around to remind us the album still holds its power today. Channel Orange is a jaw-dropping work of art, simultaneously a set list of flawless and timeless R&B tracks and more than any other artifact of twenty-first century pop culture one that sounds so remarkably now. In many ways Ocean’s greatest strength is his forward thinking approach to his craft – the futuristic sprawl of “Pyramids,” or the genre-blurring of tracks like “Lost,” or the lyrical subversion of gender norms on “Thinkin Bout You” or “Bad Religion.” But, it’s ultimately the narrative quality that elevates Channel Orange to its status as the number one album of the decade so far. It’s a collection of sad songs about sad people, and its narrator never hides behind his complicated subject matter but rather courageously croons and coos his way through some truly gorgeous and sunny R&B tunes.
2. To Pimp a Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar, 2015)
Hip hop may be to the twenty-first century what rock was to the twentieth, as Kanye boldly proclaims. If so, then Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is the genre’s defining work. In its epic scope, it celebrates black excellence without getting lost in the zeitgeist of today. Relevant it may sound, but its absorption of nearly a century of traditionally black musical expressions from jazz to funk gives it a sense of timelessness. As with his stunning debut, Lamar paints a portrait of black America as a whole, but it’s also surprisingly a document of powerful self-reflexivity as the artist weighs his own role as a cultural icon and influencer. But, what is unfortunately less commented on than the album’s importance is the music itself – a whirlwind of groovy, free-flowing, effortlessly cool tracks that comprise an exhilarating whole.
3. The Idler Wheel (Fiona Apple, 2012)
Fiona Apple has been wooing devoted fans for the past two decades, but it’s easy for her to get lost in the overcrowded female singer/songwriter craze of the mid-nineties. But, the triumphant success of her fourth and best album The Idler Wheel… offers proof that she was always in a league of her own. Musically, the record isn’t much more than the singer’s jazzy vocals, her plunking piano, and her brilliant words. Apple may very well be our finest lyricist today, perhaps Kendrick Lamar standing as her only rival. There’s fine poetry in a dinner plate seasoned with teardrops, white doves to soak up a disloyal lover’s words likened to hot piss, Apple’s hot knife to her lover’s pad of butter, and when she reminds us that there’s nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key. Indeed.
4. Teen Dream (Beach House, 2010)
Not since Loveless has a band created such a vast other world with their music as Beach House did with Teen Dream. Dream pop can often be a pejorative term, a sub-genre to describe pretty music that’s short on memorable melodies and perfect only for background noise. But, here the Baltimore duo has crafted the quintessential dreamscape record with Legrand’s hazy, obscure vocals, Scaly’s jangly guitar work, an organ they borrowed from Mazzy Star, a cheap drum machine, and a whole lot of dreamy atmosphere. The songs are lovely too, enjoyed on their own (particularly opener “Zebra,” highlight “Walk in the Park,” and epic “10 Mile Stereo”), but best appreciated within the context of the entire album.
5. good kid, m.A.A.d city (Kendrick Lamar, 2012)
Kendrick Lamar gives us a twenty-first century Illmatic with his cinematic debut good kid, m.A.A.d city, an album that paints vivid pictures of growing up in Compton. But, where many a hip hop record has focused on the noble transition from gangster to star, Lamar’s documents the years before when the choice stares a teen down like the barrel of gun. He perfectly captures the art of peer pressure, the dangers of drinking, and the devastating effects of gang violence with some of the rawest verses in years set to some of hip hop’s finest beats. Lamar may have surrounded himself with spot-on guest appearances (what up, Dre) and a team of the finest producers, but it’s ultimately his show – easily the greatest emcee in the game today.
6. Lemonade (Beyoncé, 2016)
Beyoncé’s transition from radio star to bona fide artist has been made complete with the artist’s sixth album, her best yet; a cohesive statement on heartache, loss, and redemption set to some of today’s greatest pop production. Beyoncé has boldly explored fringe genres before, once claiming to slow it down when the radio told her to speed it up, but here her eclecticism is a secret weapon that keeps each and every one of these tracks fresh on repeat listens. From the reggae inspired “Hold Up,” to the Zeppelin-sampling “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” to the country-tinged “Daddy Lessons,” to the revivalist “Freedom,” to the trap anthem “Formation,” Lemonade is one gripping, rewarding (and culturally significant) listen.
7. Bon Iver (Bon Iver, 2011)
With his sophomore album as Bon Iver, Justin Vernon attempted to convince us Prince’s jams and MJ’s beats weren’t the only pieces from the eighties worth clinging to. Building on the cavernous folk of his debut, Vernon resurrects cheesy eighties balladry and miraculously turns soft rock into art. There are hints of his sparse, folksy beginnings (“Holocene,” “Michant,” “Wash.”), but for the most part Bon Iver is the blossoming spring to For Emma’s snow-covered winter. The stomping drums and flurry of horns on opener “Perth” set the stage for an album of beautiful songs with complicated arrangements (“Minnesota, WI”) and tasteful synth-led ballads (“Calgary,” “Beth/Rest”).
8. Carrie & Lowell (Sufjan Stevens, 2015)
If this decade witnessed folk master Justin Vernon exit his woodsy cabin with orchestral aplomb, then indie darling Sufjan Stevens followed the opposite trajectory. The ever-talented musician traded in the maximalist chamber pop of his opus Illinois for stripped-down folk reminiscent of his early days for the tragic, intimate Carrie & Lowell. Stevens’ seventh album is a personal confessional in the vein of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea and risks embarrassment in its focus on his recently departed mother. But, its poetic lyrics and piercing sincerity keep it from dipping into misplaced melodrama. Though the tone of the record is mostly one of despair, there are tiny glimmers of hope like in the final moments of highlight “Should Have Known Better” that reward repeat listens.
9. In Colour (Jamie xx, 2015)
The decade’s finest electronic album so far finds one of the industry’s most exciting producers shedding the minimalism that made him and his bandmates unexpected stars in 2009 with the xx’s debut. In Colour, then, is the culmination of Jamie xx’s efforts over the past few years to blow the roof off his well-established style of laying deep, downtempo beats. From rousing opener and dance anthem “Gosh” onward, the producer’s debut features burst after burst of maximalist pleasures. The steel pan drums on “Obvs” prove he still has the edge on dying fad tropical house, “Loud Places” is a confetti-showering glow of a break-up song, and “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” (though featuring truly stupid lyrics from Young Thug) is the perfect fusion of Jamie’s dance production and thudding hip hop.
10. Black Messiah (D’Angelo & the Vanguard, 2014)
D’Angelo’s retro buttery soul was his calling card with impeccable albums Brown Sugar and Voodoo, and then the ringleader of neo soul (whatever that even meant) disappeared. For years he and his collaborators promised his glorious return, but no one could have expected Black Messiah. Comeback albums have become a pop culture phenomenon this decade, and while some of them have been great (Aphex Twin’s Syro, A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here…, and My Bloody Valentine’s m b v which just barely missed this list), none of them has been as satisfying as Black Messiah, the logical next step in D’Angelo’s work. The southern soul is back, but his style has also grown to pepper his music with aggressive, shredding guitars (“1000 Deaths”), eastern sitars (“The Charade,” “Another Life”), and a whole lot of jazzy funk.
Honorable Mention: The Suburbs (Arcade Fire, 2010), Halcyon Digest (Deerhunter, 2010), This Is Happening (LCD Soundsystem, 2010), m b v (My Bloody Valentine, 2013), Currents (Tame Impala, 2015)
More to come soon…