This month, I turn 45 years old. The music that influenced me as a teen-ager is being reissued in 30th anniversary deluxe editions. The turn of the 20th century is roughly four years away from being 20 years behind us. I’m five years away from 50.
In 2016, I wrote about the various twists and turns my listening habits took over the course of four decades. Now, I’m pinpointing specific albums that mark each decade for me, starting with the current one.
The pop culture identity of a decade doesn’t really establish itself till two years into it, and my age puts me at such a distance from that zeitgeist that I have no clue what this decade means. Or perhaps the culture has moved on from rallying around music, streaming services allowing us to explore everything conforming to our highly-optimized filter bubbles.
I wonder if this list will even grow much beyond this year.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
I see A Sailor’s Guide to Earth as something of a cap to the Obama era of progress. Even after signing to a major label, the fiercely independent Simpson crafted a thoroughly-composed work. It can’t be sliced up into singles, or the architecture of the album would crumble. Would this kind album flourished under the current leadership in Washington, D.C.? I doubt it.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
So far, 2015 has been the creative pinnacle of this decade. Sleater-Kinney ushered it in with an album that barely acknowledged the decade-long gap from its predecessor, and Jason Isbell, Kendrick Lamar and Lin-Manuel Miranda followed in their wake. Madonna, Janet Jackson and Enya even showed up with some of their best work in years.
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean
I haven’t mentioned that I’ve been taking music theory courses at the University of Washington, where I work. Seattle Symphony reconnected me with classical music, and the orchestra’s advocacy of new music inspired me to fill in the gaps of my undergraduate classical training.
Jarell Perry, Simple Things
I didn’t know PBR&B was a thing till I tried to figure out just what Jarell Perry, Solange, Shaprece and the Weeknd were doing with R&B. Hip-hop has its underground tract, and evidently, so does R&B. Of course, PBR&B is a terrible term.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
You’re not supposed to judge media by their cover art, but it’s hard not to sense something pretty intense in Isbell’s gaze on the cover of Southeastern. I don’t know if I would have listened to this album otherwise.
Kuriyama Chiaki, CIRCUS
Kuriyama Chiaki could have gotten someone like Perfume producer Nakata Yasutaka to fashion a hit-making album, but she tossed her hat into a ring that included Shiina Ringo and Asai Kenichi. I discovered she played Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 only after I listened to the album.
Tags: jarell perry, jason isbell, john luther adams, kuriyama chiaki, music discovery, sleater-kinney, sturgill simpson
We’re half way into the second decade of the 2000s, and I haven’t seen much punditry on what albums have been emblematic of the decade. It’s probably because listening habits have moved on from albums even if the release cycle hasn’t.
My friend will be disappointed to learn I consider 2010 the start of the decade, so I’ll restrict my list to its first five years with 2010 included (i.e. 2010-2014.)
- Jason Isbell, Southeastern: “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” and “Elephant” pretty much sold me on this album, and everything else was just seduction.
- Tokyo Jihen, Sports: Shiina Ringo loosened her writing monopoly with the band, which then internalized her style to produce its best album.
- Jarell Perry, Simple Things: Part of me thinks this album is actually better than Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE.
- John Luther Adams, Become Ocean: Does what it says on the tin very, very beautifully
- Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE: WHERE YOU AT FRANK??
- D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah: So many of my friends lost their shit when this album was released that I had to hear it for myself.
- Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe: I love her music, but damn, her videos are disturbing.
- Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds of Country Music: What happens to country music when it ingests hallucinogens.
- Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now: Thank you, Mark Ronson, for bringing Duran Duran back to itself.
- Kuriyama Chiaki, CIRCUS: Getting Shiina Ringo to write a few tracks is a sure way for Japanese actresses to grab my attention.
Tags: d'angelo, duran duran, favorite edition, frank ocean, jarell perry, jason isbell, john luther adams, kuriyama chiaki, santigold, sturgill simpson, tokyo jihen
I didn’t think a comeback this year could top the return of Sleater-Kinney, but I was mistaken. I didn’t realize how much I had missed Janet Jackson till she returned, and Enya quenched a drought of a similar length (7 years.) Even Madonna turned in work that’s some of her best in a while. I also learned the awful term “PBR&B”, which describes the kind of R&B music to which I seem to be drawn.
- Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical: The last time the score of a musical had me riveted to my stereo was The Phantom of the Opera. Not only is the story of Hamilton thrilling to follow, but the hip-hop score is jaw-dropping. Policy debates as rap battles? Maybe that should happen in real life.
- Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly: Just about every year-end list will include this album near the top. And I don’t even listen that much hip-hop.
- Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
- Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free: It’s always great to see an artist with a breakthrough album follow up with something just as strong.
- Torche, Restarter
- Björk, Vulnicura: So now the question is which do you prefer: Vulnicura or Vulnicura Strings?
- Deebs and Jarell Perry, Shift: I like how Jarell Perry keeps pushes the borders of what R&B can do. He’s got great company with Shaprece, Santigold, Miguel and Frank Ocean, WHEREVER THE HELL HE IS.
- Steve Grand, All-American Boy: I still don’t understand why people call him a country artist. He sounds nothing like Sturgill Simpson.
- Janet Jackson, Unbreakable: Janet returns with her most sonically diverse album since The Velvet Rope.
- Miguel, Wildheart: He bragged about being better than Frank Ocean, and I hate to say it, but I think there’s something behind that bravado.
Honorable mention goes to …
- Madonna, Rebel Heart
- Duran Duran, Paper Gods: Duran Duran tends to misstep after hitting a home run, but that’s not the case here.
- Enya, Dark Sky Island: You know what you’re getting with Enya. On a few tracks, she does seem to be dipping a tentative toe into more pop styles, by which I mean less Bach.
- Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit: Barnett crams a lot of imagery in her songs, but they make for great stories.
- ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, Wonder Future: When ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION take time with their albums, it really pays off.
- Kronos Quartet, Tundra Songs: No, this isn’t an international crossover album. If anything, it’s some of the most challenging music the quartet has recorded in a while.
- Seattle Symphony / Ludovic Morlot, Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 / Varese: Ameriques: This album is something of a souvenir for me because I attended this concert, but the live recording of Ameriques would be reason enough to pick it up.
- Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under Beauty: I didn’t think this album would be very distinct from MONO, but it’s quite a change for Taka and still recognizably him.
- Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear: This album will also appear on a lot of year-end lists, but it didn’t grab me as much as everything else on the list.
Tags: bjork, deebs, favorite edition, janet jackson, jarell perry, jason isbell, kendrick lamar, lin-manuel miranda, miguel, sleater-kinney, steve grand, torche
Part of me still misses ICE Magazine, the publication dedicated to reporting on new releases and reissues. Super Deluxe Edition has done a good job recapturing the kind of reporting that went into ICE. I’ve adjusted to using Pause and Play for tracking new releases, but sometimes, I get more relevant information from the personalization features on Discogs.
ICE launched in the early ’90s to track compact disc releases. It ended publication just as the download market ate into CD sales. If a similar publication were to launch today, it would probably report on which artists have made their content exclusive on which streaming service. And vinyl. Talk about turnabout being fair play.
10,000 Maniacs, Twice Told Tales, April 28
This latest incarnation of 10,000 Maniacs brings Mary Ramsey back into the fold and welcomes a guitarist who also doubles on vocals. For this album, the Maniacs reach for the roots, covering the traditional music that has informed their sound.
Roomful of Teeth, Render, April 28
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I had the temerity to stick with my composition studies in college. It might have sounded like the stuff happening in Brooklyn with the likes of Roomful of Teeth, So Percussion and Alarm Will Sound.
Takaakira Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under Beauty, May 5
Taka wrote this album around the time MONO started getting orchestral. I’ve enjoyed the rougher sound of Rays of Darkness too much to want to go back in time.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind, May 12
Brian Ahrens didn’t produce this second duet album, but Harris and Crowell wanted The Traveling Kind to reflect where they are as artists now. It’s hard not to have high expectations.
Deebs/Jarrell Perry, Shift, May 19
A lot of attention will focus on the second album by Frank Ocean, but for my money, Jarrell Perry does a far more adventurous job pushing the edges of R&B.
Faith No More, Sol Invictus, May 19
Yeah, yeah, insert grumbling about Jim Martin’s lack of involvement here. I’m still curious.
NOW Ensemble, Dreamfall, May 26
See above about labelmates Roomful of Teeth.
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free, July 17
Damn, Jason Isbell is looking mighty fine on that cover photo. I couldn’t get enough of Southeastern, so I’ve spent the last few months devouring his 2011 album Here We Rest. Now a new set is just going to keep this jones going.
Frank Ocean, Boys Don’t Cry, July 2015
Hey, Frank, could you convince Universal Music to put out a decent vinyl issue of channel ORANGE as well? Thanks.
Duran Duran, TBD, September 2015
Not since Colin Thurston has Duran Duran worked with the same producer twice. Mark Ronson brought out not just the vintage sound of Duran Duran but also the unmistakable essence of a Duran Duran song. Here’s hoping the latter gets retained if the former evolves.
Tags: 10000 maniacs, deebs, duran duran, emmylou harris, faith no more, frank ocean, goto takaakira, jarell perry, jason isbell, looking ahead, now ensemble, rodney crowell, roomful of teeth