Bon Iver: Bon Iver (2011)
Quality: 8.5, Cultural Splash: 8
The sophomore album is always a taboo one for artists, especially Bon Iver. Following the huge success of their debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver represented a shift for the band–a more collaborative effort than their debut album, largely seen as lead singer Vernon’s breakup journal. Each song is named for a place, and plays with the idea that places are defined by the feelings, times, and people intertwined with the memory of each place one goes. The album was named album of the year by Pitchfork, won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album, and its breakaway song Holocene was nominated for Record and Song of the Year. For me, this album captures the emotions and nostalgia that different places bring, flows cohesively and beautifully, and has been one of the few albums I circle back to throughout college. – Matt Dougherty
The Brave Little Abacus: Just Got Back From the Discomfort–We’re Alright (2010)
Quality: 9, Cultural Splash: 7
This is the album that made anything seem possible.
With bedroom recording, Bandcamp, Soulseek, FL Studio, viral self-promotion on Reddit, ability to Google “never meant tabs”, and the dutiful curation of underground music on Blogspot, there was the persistent suggestion of the democratization and universal accessibility of music. With the abundance of available resources, this should’ve been undoubtedly the best decade for music, every new record a ten out of ten. That musical singularity didn’t quite turn out. Fortunately, at least we got Just Back From the Discomfort – We’re Alright.
It’s true that a computer makes it easier to make music. It’s easy to find a download link to American Football, Joyce Manor, or Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit, get together with your friends and do your best job of rearranging those ideas. But it’s too easy to get lost in the adoration of these great bands and end up with an album as derivative as the one I recorded in high school. What’s much harder, and what a computer won’t really help you with, is to do something different.
The Brave Little Abacus stands out not for the improbability of their success but for the pure strength of their songwriting. Ostensibly an “emo” album, Just Got Back From the Discomfort is an intricate collage of Spongebob-influenced vocals, Malcolm in the Middle leitmotifs, and an ambition for nothing that’s quite ever been heard before. The unmoored approach may seem like a mess, but the revelatory moments cut through the confusion and you realize.
The Brave Little Abacus created with tools you probably have, was received by an audience about as small as yours would be, and made a similarly microscopic amount of dollars. But it’s so peerless; maybe you could be, too. – Will Miller
C418: Minecraft – Volume Alpha (2011)
Quality: 6, Cultural Splash: 8
Minecraft, an immersive life simulator, has only become increasingly more impressive and ubiquitous over the course of the decade as actual existence, an unimmersive life simulator, has failed to impress. For the generation of people whose memories of childhood are marked with anxieties of the Anthropocene, political turmoil, and instances of otherwise incomprehensible unreality, Minecraft is a space of hyperreality where resources are generated within an infinitely replicable 30 billion squared chunk universe. There is no entropy, no law of conservation of energy, and the flowers are abundant.
C418’s soundtrack brings to the digital replications a sublime sense of grace and poise unparalleled by natural phenomena. Consider dawn, a glowing square emerging over the horizon to the transcendental “Sweden”. Or emerging from a perilous subterranean dungeon crawl to hear “Subwoofer Lullaby”, a poignant reflection on all that has been lost for you to have gained. The music of Minecraft – Volume Alpha, largely a combination of ambient synths and sparse piano melodies heavily derivative of Eno and Satie, separates itself from its forbearers through its integration within an experience. This is not music bound to a turntable or a venue but instead exists outside of reality as a soundtrack to memory. – Will Miller
Carly Rae Jepsen: E•MO•TION (2015)
Quality: 8, Cultural Splash: 6
Emotion is the quintessential pop album of the decade. After her breakthrough single “Call Me Maybe” was released in 2012, many refused to take Jepsen seriously. Emotion not only proves Jepsen’s ability, but it proves that she has the drive to remain in the industry. Over 200 tracks were workshopped and in consideration for the album before being boiled down to the 15 that made the final cut. From the synth sounds of “Run Away with Me”, to the dance track “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance”, to the slower ballad “All That”, Jepsen put together an incredibly coherent and fantastic pop album that was underappreciated at best. – Matt Dougherty
Charli XCX: Pop 2 (2017)
Quality: 10, Cultural Splash: 10
According to Sp*tify, Charli XCX was my artist of the decade. With that in mind, Pop 2 was a moment for me as much as it was for her. Simply put, it’s a celebration of her greatest strengths. There is so much to be impressed with, from the breakneck speed at which it was put together (recording began two months before release) to the extensive credits, ranging in contributions from executive producer A.G. Cook to now frequent guests like CupcakKe. Loaded to the brim with details like a glitching breakdown before the last chorus of “Femmebot,” the tremolo in the bridge of “Delicious” that makes you feel like your brain’s just been fried, and the literal sustained screech holding up the chorus of “Tears,” Pop 2 is surprising at first listen, and still magical every time thereafter.
For something so explosive, Charli never loses control. If anything, leveraging the mixtape format maximizes her curatorial ability. Even with thirteen features across ten tracks, everyone shines. She manages to actualize long-awaited collaborations on tracks like the glassy, warbling opener “Backseat” featuring Carly Rae Jepsen and put listeners onto new favorites like Tommy Cash on “Delicious.” Unexpected combinations, like Caroline Polachek’s notoriously breathy voice with Charli’s heavier, almost blunt tone marry surprisingly well. And still, she saves the best all for herself with the beautifully unfurling closer, “Track 10.”
There is honestly no better title for this project. It highlights “pop” in all of its meanings: pushing on the boundaries of the genre and bursting at some points, with the “2” serving as a nod to the futuristic vision embodied throughout. And Charli herself… a pop star in the truest sense. Delivering the full package of sound and image, she showed the world in that in this new era of chrome-laden, hyperinflated pop music, she is the b l u e p r i n t. – Nour Elkassabany
Danny Brown: XXX (2011)
Quality: 9, Cultural Splash: 8
Danny Brown’s respect for the album as a medium is a passion that gradually reveals itself on XXX. The first half is marked by the irreverence and hilarity of tracks like “I Will”, “Radio Song”, and “Blunt After Blunt”. While there are glimpses of the macabre on “Die Lie a Rockstar”, this side of the record gives the impression that it’s only an adept and accelerated performance of rap clichés. That’d be more than satisfying on its own, but XXX defines itself by its duality.
With the This Heat samples on “Adderall Admiral”, it’s clear that the record is headed into unexplored territory transitioning into the second side. Throwing out tropes, the dark realism of Danny Brown’s rapping creates an inverted world of the first half, recontextualizing everything that has been heard before. Now the brief references to drugs and pain take on a more sinister presence as these nightmares are confronted with the same unflinching intensity. Simultaneously joking and deathly serious, XXX contains a recursively looping absurdity that shifts from comedy to pain to comedy, building both to unbearable new limits. – Will Miller
Earl Sweatshirt: Some Rap Songs (2018)
Quality: 9, Cultural Splash: 7
There are some things that are too hard to talk about. They’re too scary or too painful or too sad. For a lyrical prodigy to take on these subjects takes an immense amount of bravery because they are beyond words. All that needs to be understood is in the glitches of the beats, the skips in the samples, and the somnambulating pace as the tracks lurch into each other.
When Earl Sweatshirt raps, he doesn’t need to try to construct an especially detailed storyline or grasp towards the unspeakable. It’s already right there, it’s already unspoken. These raps are powerful captions and fragments highlighting the stories between the sounds. Through it all, Earl keeps the linguistic acrobatics leaping around the subject, not offering catchphrases or punchlines so much as liminal spaces to understand the incomprehensible. – Will Miller
Fall Out Boy: Save Rock and Rock (2013)
Quality: 3, Cultural Splash: 8
What I have to say about this album is independent from what I have to say about Fall Out Boy in general; I must temper my negative review of this album with an expression of glowing, sincere adoration of FOB, and I hope that I strike that balance in this commentary. Let me know if I don’t. Save Rock and Roll intends to call out to the fans disappointed and seemingly abandoned by the band’s decision to go on hiatus in 2010, “Don’t worry, we’re back, Rock & Roll is saved.” But was it? Did they do it? No. Believe you me, this is a fine album. Featuring a troupe of highly recognizable rock names, such as Elton John and Courtney Love (even branching out of the genre with Big Sean and Foxes), the songs are upbeat and distinct. But otherwise, a fairly commercial and boring album.
This album belongs in the album of the decade list because it’s a fable. One of the biggest artists of the previous decade, in my yet uncontested opinion, finds that fame truly is fleeting. They had bowed out gracefully just at the turn of the decade, after three impeccable albums (four albums total), but they got greedy as the years went on, restless for the spotlight once more. What they did not expect was to be not welcomed in the new era. Their hubris was their downfall. Let us learn from it. We can’t all be My Chemical Romance.
I will not comment on the numerous albums they released this decade, because I refuse to acknowledge them. This is a band that belonged in the 2000s. If you want to properly appreciate Fall Out Boy, listen to only their first four albums, then watch YouTube clips of Pete Wentz’s cameo in One Tree Hill. We can always remember the good times. – Olivia Mukherjee