On a recent episode of Celebration Rock, host Steven Hyden and Pitchfork curmudgeon Ian Cohen discussed their top ten rock albums of the ’10s. Now, their lists were fine–Hyden’s more so than Cohen’s as Cohen was probably too busy giving a perfectly fine album a rating of 1.6 (out of 10) while slowly sneering the word “derivative”–but what interested me more was the larger conversation about the state of rock precipitated by their lists.
I agree with Hyden when he suggests that genre lines are becoming more indistinguishable. Even a decade ago, those lines were drawn firmly in the ground. Now, indie is pop is rock is country is punk is emo is metal and so on and so on. As Iggy Pop famously said, “it’s all disco.” I earnestly believe that’s more true today than it ever has been. And as the genre lines have blurred, so too has the game artists are playing. In previous decades, different genres of music had different benchmarks. Where one act may have wanted a bundle of radio hits, another may have wanted critical praise. Today, generally speaking, all recording artists are playing the same game. We’re all faced with a deluge of choice in this digital age, and as streaming services offer consumers a century’s worth of music by recording artists all over the globe, artists have to take any victory they can. It’s just too damn hard to compete against the entire discographies of everyone ever. It doesn’t matter if an act gets a song on the radio or a nice write-up on a blog; anything that allows the artist to be momentarily heard over the din is a victory.
I don’t know what this sea change does to rock writ large. On one hand, the live music industry isn’t going anywhere. Just look at the festival circuit; people are still willing to dump out buckets of their hard-earned cash to experience live music. On the other hand, I find it pretty easy to take the cynical position that we are witnessing the death rattle of rock (or whatever you want to call this amalgamation of genres that loosely falls under the umbrella of pop). Rock today looks and feels a lot like jazz in the ’80s: there is still some interesting music being made and you can certainly still track down a transcendent live experience, but its best days are behind it. Unlike Hyden, who comes from the old school of reverential rock writers, I don’t personally believe any one piece of rock music was or is important. However, music has the unique capacity to unite, and there was a time when rock music brought people together adjacent to the important thinkers, thoughts, movements, and moments. I think that time is over for rock. The kids don’t give a shit when the candidate blasts Neil Young at the end of his campaign rally. It’s time for some other genre to take on that mantle of uniting folks adjacent to importance.
But none of that is to say rock no longer exists or that we can’t still enjoy it. There were still a lot of folks grooving on jazz in the ’80s, too.
I had gotten a little burnt out on lists, but I had so much fun listening to Hyden and Cohen that I had to rethink that position a bit. So, with a tip of the cap to those guys, here are my top 10 rock albums of the ’10s:
10. Frontier Ruckus – Deadmalls and Nightfalls (2010)
This is probably the closest thing to an oddball on my list. These guys aren’t super well-known, but I was deeply moved by the way this album’s lyrics so strongly evoke a sense of place. The banjo and trumpet interplay seal the deal for me.
9. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (2015)
Folks went far crazier for their debut album, but I found their sophomore effort to be far more exciting. By blending elements of rock, r&b, soul, punk, psychedelic, and indie, the album manages to sound simultaneously contemporary and retro. In some ways, it’s a perfect snapshot of the modern musical landscape.
8. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead (2011)
I’ve heard a lot of folks rag on this one. It’s either too precious or not as good as the earlier Decemberists records, but the song craft is just fantastic. These are endlessly catchy songs. Gillian Welch sings harmonies. Peter Buck plays guitar, and, yeah, some of these songs are reminiscent of R.E.M.’s best work, but shouldn’t we all strive to be a little more like R.E.M.?
7. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)
Can an album with “country music” in its name be rock? Hell yes, it can. It’s more rock than 99% of what passes for rock today. But then again, 99% of what passes for rock today doesn’t try to seek answers to the big questions the way Sturgill does here.
6. Father John Misty – Fear Fun (2012)
This is a fun little postmodern record that pays homage to and flips off its influences in a single breath. It’s an album of contradictions. Many of the songs’ narrators are both incredibly cocky while simultaneously drowning in self-doubt. The singer demands his audience take him seriously, but there’s a shit-eating grin on his face when he delivers the message.
5. The National – High Violet (2010)
For my money, it’s The National, and not Arcade Fire, that holds the belt for Greatest 21st Century Band. I saw The National live for the first time in the summer of 2010, and it was one of those shows that changed my life. They played almost all of the songs on this record at that show. And what a fantastic bunch of understated postpunk burners it is.
4. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest (2011)
This is another one that some folks might not consider rock, but just look at the album cover and tell me this isn’t a rock record. Two acoustic guitar, two vocals, and the occasional banjo or harmonica might not be your traditional rock instrumentation, but these noirish, atmospheric, fated folk songs are about as rock as it gets in my book.
3. FIDLAR – FIDLAR (2013)
Remember when rock was fun? If not, please listen to this record as loud as you can tolerate. No, listen to it at a level that’s above your threshold for pain. You’re welcome.
2. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor (2010)
Look, yes, this is a concept album that draws parallels between the American Civil War and growing up bored, indifferent, and disenfranchised in the American suburbs of the late 20th Century. Yes, there are allusions to Abraham Lincoln and the Ted Danson and Woody Harrelson sitcom Cheers. If it’s not the most nuanced, it very well may be the fist pumpingest. This album has anthemic singalongs and extended punk guitar freakouts for days and days and days.
1. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011)
Of all the albums on this list, this is the only one that truly blew my mind. After I listened to this album for the first time, I felt like every molecule of my being had been replaced, like I was a wholly new person. I had never heard anything like it at the time. And I haven’t heard anything like it since. I could not listen to another new release for the rest of the ’10s, and I could still say with 100% confidence that this is the best rock album of the ’10s. It’s that good. It’s that unique.