An ambitious project, to be sure, and there is every chance that if I look back on it, say, in three years, I’ll probably disagree with myself, but at the moment, this is my list.
The albums I considered were the ones that I had already chosen in my yearly lists — most of them, anyway. Occasionally an album came along after the fact that I realized should have been included had I heard it at the right time. The chore was to figure out which of them were good enough to make The Final List. I began with about 45 albums, gleaned from my listening over the years — I had no set number I was aiming for, I just went year-by-year and chose what I considered to be the standouts from my list for that year. In the end, I narrowed it down to fifteen albums: some years were simply better for great music than others, and I see no reason to ignore that fact.
Of course, there is the obvious question: What makes an album good enough to be an album of the decade?? It is a question that is harder to answer than I anticipated, since I have to have criteria that includes perhaps some … unexpected entries.
It comes down to a couple of essential qualities. The first, naturally enough, is sheer staying power. It has to be an album that can stand up to repeat visits and retain the power and appeal that made it a favourite in the first place. There are lots of albums that grab me and make me play them a lot, but eventually I drift away, and whatever it was that drew me to them has gone.
The best albums continue to be able to hit all those same triggers that snagged me in the first place: that ineluctable rush of joy, the goosebumpy thrill, forcing me to pay attention. They manifest the transcendence of the best music to me, whatever idiosyncratic stimuli I require in order to consider an album something of lasting value. It’s difficult to explain why I feel that particular set of responses for any record, given the variety of genres these albums represent — obviously the oriental-folk syncretism of Lunatic Soul is very different from the pounding hard-rock of Pretty Maids — but albums from both those outfits are capable of transporting me.
I guess it comes down to this: whatever the music is, it must feel authentic. I am not attracted for very long to stuff that sounds forced, or derivative, or self-absorbed, or that emulates something else even with the best of intentions. The best music should feel natural, unselfconscious, emanating, as it were, from a place deep in the soul of the creators.
In terms of the artists who made the cut: certainly there are The Usual Suspects, the ones I tend to find consistently satisfying, but I am always prepared to be surprised, and I surely have been over the years. There are albums on this list that literally came out of nowhere. There are candidates from bands that I have found unlistenable at times; there are albums that are not consistently great — that have a few tracks I don’t play very much — but the overall impact of the album as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I hope at least you will find the list interesting.
15. Illusion: Anhedonia (2018)
I know, I know, some of you are probably wondering: What the hell is this one doing in an Album of the Decade list??
But I thought about it — and really, it does hit pretty much all the aspects I am looking for. It hooks me completely and thoroughly, its headbanging enthusiasm gets me moving every single time I play it, it cheers me up no end, so it meets the repeat playability aspect in spades. To be sure, it has no particular intellectual merit (as far as I can tell, not being able to understand the lyrics), and it is no exemplar of musical virtuosity or creative nuance by any means. It is, however, a straightforwardly honest album, with no pretensions, no notion of being anything other than what it is, and that in itself endows it with more credibility than many of the things I hear.
This is an album of straight-up post-punk delivered by a Polish quartet, hard, sludgy and edgy, the songs brief and to the point, wasting no time with noodling or unnecessary meandering about; and it is clear that the guys doing this are no dilettantes. There is real craftmanship here, a clear sense of purpose, an unerring sense of melody and riffage — these guys are old pros, and it shows.
14. Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster: Exegesis (2012)
I didn’t really know what post-metal was at the time I first heard this album; what I did know was that from the first note of the first track (“Fractal World”) I was hooked. I already knew I liked a lot of instrumental music, and I also knew I was a headbanger at heart, always drawn to the heavier aspects of most genres I listened to, especially prog, and by god what I heard here seemed to be a match made in heaven — kick-ass hard rock, and mostly instrumental: there are vocals on this album, but the emphasis is clearly on the massive wall-of-guitar soundscape, the rumbling basslines, the intricate drumming.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster is a London-based quartet: drums, bass, two guitars, who released their first album (Collapse) back in 2009; Exegesis is their second effort, from 2012.
Exegesis blasts its way through 8 powerhouse tracks, everything from facemelting sledgehammer chordfests (“Black Iron Prison”; the title track) through more contemplative pieces (“Valis”) but all strongly melodic, solidly crafted, fiercely performed — some of these songs are righteous juggernauts. Even thought I do not love all the tracks equally, the album makes the list because it is a pivotal album in the evolution of my musical knowledge — it opened the door to a huge new genre for me to explore, and the best songs here are as good as anything by the more well-known outfits of the style. Hell — maybe better.
13. Gary Numan: Savage: Songs from a Broken World (2017)
I was actually surprised when Numan crept back into my awareness, back in 2011 with a pretty good track called “Dead Sun Rising”, a slow electronic industrial effort; of course his songs were unavoidable back in the heyday of his early hits, but I’d had no idea that he was still active. His 2013 album Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind held a lot of promise, and he proved to be an extraordinary live presence. My first impression of Savage was that it was very much like Splinter, but as I continued to explore it, it became clear that Savage was on a whole new level.
Numan astonishes with this album, one of two post-apocalyptic-themed albums on the list. After some 35 odd years, creativity, musicality, and inspiration all coalesce into a beautiful, unsettling vision of a damaged world and the desperate hope of the people left in it. Heavy and delicate at the same time, with beefy electronics and soaring vocals, hooky and evocative; it is probably a song or two too long which drags it down the list some, but Numan remains one of the few musicians around who shows that it is possible to remain fresh and visionary after decades in the business.
12. Riverside: Memories in My Head (2011)
You knew these guys had to be on the list somewhere, didn’t you?
It wasn’t as obvious as you might think, though, since out of the 4 albums they released during the decade, I actually don’t care for 2 of them. At least that leaves some room for other artists.
It always amazes me, whenever I play this EP (which is a lot) just how effortless it sounds. It is an almost perfect little prog album from the guys who keep insisting they aren’t prog, or at least are not trying to be prog, and that is why it works. Because all they are trying to do — all they have ever tried to do — is make the best music they know how to make, genre be damned. As it happens, Memories in My Head was the summation of a particular musical phase, and it sweeps through three glorious long songs that link almost seamlessly together, four guys at the top of their game, showcasing their vast command of whatever genre you want to call it.
11. Shearwater: Animal Joy (2012)
Shearwater has always been a problematic band for me. They are a band whose music I really do want to like, and yet they have a number of albums I simply cannot sit through. The occasional song, some of which are great (“The Snow Leopard” from Rook for example), but then the tracks wander off into Indy Hell.
Animal Joy is the first first Shearwater album I could listen to in its entirety. It doesn’t have any truly outstanding tracks, but it also doesn’t have any lesser ones either. It is solidly consistent throughout, harder than many of the other albums, and curiously enough, it sticks with me. Returning to it after a while away, I am always struck by the sheer braininess of the outfit, or at least of Jonathan Meiburg (since the band lineup tends to shift and change). It is an album with a lot of promise, not quite fulfilled.
10. Salt of the Chief Cornerstone: Intelligent Design (2014)
This is one of those came-out-of-nowhere albums. It’s discovery is also one of my favourite concert stories: Salt was (they appear to be inactive now) a guitar-with-effects/drum duo from Windsor, Canada, who somehow pulled the opener slot for Apocalyptica when that outfit played in Toronto back in 2014. I had gone to see Apocalyptica on a whim: metal on cellos. Had to check it out.
The opening act consisted of two guys: one had an amp draped with what looked like white Christmas lights, and a clear acrylic guitar; the drummer had a clear drum set. Oh yay, we the audience think, a novelty act. Polite inattention ensues.
Well, not for very long. These two guys launched into an astonishing set of hard-as-nails post-metal: the drummer was a righteous madman and the guitarist produced as dense and intricate a chordfest as I’d ever heard — they were mesmerizing. Gradually the audience stopped chattering and checking their phones, and to this day Salt remains the only unknown opening act I’ve seen — the only opening act of any reputation in fact — that had to play an encore due to audience demand. I did enjoy Apocalyptica all to hell, but as soon as the gig was over I beelined to the merch desk and bought Intelligent Design, the only album Salt of the Chief Cornerstone have made.
The album did not disappoint: instrumental metal that is huge in sound, sophisticated in concept, and powerfully brutal in execution; clearly the guys had been putting some thought and practice into this album because as debuts go, it shows a professionalism and experience that is uncommon in first-timers. Their musicianship is top-notch. It truly blows me away every time I put it on. It commits the rookie mistakes of being two or three tracks too long and a bit too self-indulgent, but the quality of the music and performance reduce those to minor distractions.
9. Pretty Maids: Pandemonium (2010)
Another revelatory album — well, actually that was their 2016 effort Kingmaker, which introduced me to the band — but Pandemonium for me remains the pinnacle of their considerable career (many long-term fans will insist that album is actually Future World — but hey, it’s my list, and it’s the wrong decade anyway). It’s not particularly rare for long-run outfits to want to re-invent themselves, and if any band needed a good kick in the ass, it was Pretty Maids — by the noughties, they were sounding pretty stale. Then they found a new producer, and actually listened to his advice — and the album they came up with …. well, Lazarus had been dead only three days, not fifteen years. Not only did Pandemonium (and pretty much all the albums after that) re-ignite their career, it netted them a whole new set of fans.
This album showcases everything that Pretty Maids does best: marrying an unerring sense of melody and pop song-craft to monster hard-rock/metal tracks; relentless chugging riffage; majestic hard-rock ballads; solid guitar-and-drum work and the extraordinary cast-iron voice of Ronnie Atkins, face-ripping one moment, silky-smooth the next.
I was torn for a long time between Pandemonium, and their 2013 effort Motherland — both are great albums — but I think Pandemonium is just a bit more consistent, even with the rather less-than-stellar “Cielo Drive”. The first three tracks — “Pandemonium”, “I.N.V.U”, and “Little Drops of Heaven”– make for a very high bar to get over, and Motherland didn’t quite make it. But it’s a close call.
8. Riverside: Wasteland (2018)
Maybe the most anticipated, and the most anxiety-inducing album in the band’s career: the first album after the death of their beloved guitarist, Piotr Grudziński, and album that could potentially make or break the future of this band for many fans.
I reviewed the album in full previously, and you can link to it, so I will not rehash it here. Suffice to say that for me, anyway, Wasteland surpassed all expectations — it was a far, far better album than I had ever dared hope for, taking a direction firmly away from where the previous two albums had been headed (and frankly a direction that I was beginning to doubt I could follow). The band took chances: they did not replace Gru with a full-time guitarist, and they stepped firmly towards a progressive sound, but not at all like the old sound they had left behind with the end of the Reality Dream trilogy, and definitely not “prog” — as Mariusz Duda always insisted, they would not retrace their steps. It is an album that sounds completely fresh and alive, unmistakably Riverside, and with huge promise for the future.
7. Jambinai: A Hermitage (2016)
Perhaps the most startling album in the list. Jambinai are a South Korean outfit, who marry Western-style post-metal heaviness with traditional instruments, and deliver a fascinating fusion of sounds that is unique and authentic. It is safe to say that A Hermitage sounds like nothing else in this list. It is largely instrumental, but there are a couple of tracks with vocals, and one of them — one of the best tracks on the album (“Abyss”) — even features a Korean rapper. Of course I have no idea what they are saying, but that allows the vocals to become even more deeply part of the music, part of the instrumentation. The tracks move from slow, spare and contemplative, featuring haegun and geomungo, to blasting metal headbangers, still managing to feature haegun and geomungo…it is music that could so easily have drifted into self-indulgence, but A Hermitage stays true, opening up a fascinating glimpse into new possibilities.
6. Gadi Caplan: Morning Sun (2016)
This is a magical little album, one that, if it gets under your skin, will stay there forever. It’s hard to categorize: a little blues, a little folk, a little jazz, a little pop, and a whole lot of sophistication; an album of great subtlety and nuance, gently cheerful, featuring the understated greatness of Gadi Caplan on guitar, (with lyrics by Danny Abowd). Caplan is one of those musicians who will likely never be as well-recognized as he should be, and not only because he has little in the way of social media presence. It is too bad: this album is truly captivating.
5. Seeming: Sol: A Self-Banishment Ritual (2017)
This album topped my annual list for 2017, another album that came out of nowhere, by a guy I’d never heard of, and of course I reviewed it at the time. Since then I chose to become a Patron of Alex Reed (half of Seeming, as well as a number of other projects), and he has proved to be relentlessly prolific as I suspected he would be (I can’t say I’m equally fascinated by every bit of music or related ephemera he comes up with, but I am surely getting my money’s worth). The album holds up, still powerful, intellectual, poppy and industrial at the same time — there is nothing wrong with music that makes you work at listening to it.
4. Au4: And Down Goes the Sky (2013)
One of those out-of-nowhere albums; it is ambitious, intellectual — you can tell because they describe themselves as a “collective”, not a band, and generally such would not endear me, but in this case it works. I suppose the broad umbrella is prog, but largely art-rock/indie-rock with strong prog leanings. But they borrow from everywhere; this music really is genre-less, being everything at once and nothing in particular. The ideas swirl so fast and yet so successfully — in a way it seems like an album that has been engineered, built to a strict plan, rather than composed.
But for all that, it is astonishingly good. You just never know from one song to the next what you will hear–in fact, you cannot predict what direction a song will take from the way it starts. The first couple of listens involve bemused illumination, as one slowly realizes that these guys are doing something remarkable; after that the appreciation for what they have pulled off continues to grow. And the songs are eminently playable, sing-along-able, danceable — no loss of magic, despite the very structured approach that must have been taken to make the album. I think that is their huge accomplishment.
3. Lunatic Soul: Walking on a Flashlight Beam (2014)
Obviously a Lunatic Soul album was going to make the list, and it should come as no surprise that LS would hit higher than Riverside.
There were several years during which Mariusz Duda had to use his music to exorcise personal ghosts, and this, as far as I know, is the first album that came out of that period. Apparently the original ideas for the fourth Lunatic Soul album did not come to adequate fruition, and the whole enterprise had to undergo a complete overhaul. The result was Walking on a Flashlight Beam, an album that fell in with the original story arc, but as an unintended prequel rather than a successor.
And what an album it is. Sparser in sound, less acoustic and more electronic than any of the preceding LS albums, it sounded quite different, but that cool sparseness was exactly the atmosphere it needed to convey the story of isolation, desolate loneliness and desperate longing that Duda was telling. Trancelike and jagged at times, cold and electronic, but in between all that are songs that are astonishingly sensual (“Gutter”) and just plain transcendent (the final title track). I know this album rates high in the lists of quite a few people, and it is no surprise.
2. Lunatic Soul: Impressions (2011)
It was not intentional that two Lunatic Soul albums would appear so high on the list, and back-to-back; but there it is. Sometimes when you hear something for the first time, you just know. You know that this is going to be something special, something lasting, something that shifts the universe…thus was Impressions.
I had discovered Lunatic Soul at the same time I found Riverside, at the very tail-end of 2011, and so spent 2012 immersed in those projects, but of the three LS albums that existed at that time, Impressions was the album of revelation, of transcendent glory, that somehow brought together my love of folk, of instrumental music, of certain styles of world music — it was a syncretism that my soul had been searching for, but I did not know it until I heard this album. A hole was filled that I did not even know was empty, and suddenly music was never the same again.
Impressions does what it says: lays down instrumental impressions, variations, and extensions of the musical ideas of the first two Lunatic Soul albums, but it is not immediately obvious which parts of the first two inform the various Impressions, and so the album stands on its own (there are a couple of remixes from the first two LS albums tacked onto the end of the CD release, but they can be safely ignored, and they are not part of the vinyl version). This album also is revelatory in another way: Mariusz Duda is one of the best instrumental music composers out there, but of course this talent tends to get overshadowed by Riverside and the rest of the LS catalogue. For all that, Impressions will always remain that one album that embodies what music can do to the soul.
1. Shearwater: Jet Plane and Oxbow (2016)
I had less trouble choosing the album of the decade than one might imagine, given that both Riverside and Lunatic Soul – and multiple albums from each — were in the running, but to be honest I think I knew the winner right from the start. It was really just a matter of making sure I was right.
Every single time I play this album, I have to stop whatever I am doing and just listen in awe. It has everything: melody, heaviness in all the right places, nuance, blazing intelligence from every note and word, the sheer musicality of it — a band at the height of their powers, the grand coalescence of all that makes music transcendent. Every track holds magic. I do have my favourites of course, pieces from this album that I can play over and over — and each time I do, they transport me, make my hair stand on end, like they did the first time I heard them. But all of the songs–everything about this album– demonstrate that Jonathan Meiburg and his crew may be at the top of their game. In my opinion they have certainly topped everyone else’s.
Jet Plane and Oxbow is an album of acute observation of the state of the world, a commentary on certain political realities, a subtle and powerful protest album. Songs that weave and loop with great delicacy, songs that charge and chug along, driven by a great drum/bass /synth rhythm section, and the extraordinary voice of Jonathan Meiburg — crooning and contemplative one moment, punch-in-the-gut powerful the next (I’m told that live, this is literally true). They don’t make ‘em like this much, any more. This album is an enormous accomplishment, one that takes its place amongst a very select timeless few in my collection.