A decade is a long time from which to amass a list of favorite albums. And because the 2010s have comprised nearly my entire adult life, my best-of list of the decade is going to look pretty similar to my best-of all time list.
So while I wanted to list all of the albums that I loved in the last 10 years, I’m going to focus on the real gems that I don’t think got the love they deserve.
Any standard I use to define lesser-heard artists will be arbitrary, but I aimed to pick bands or musicians that currently have under 200k monthly listeners on Spotify and who wouldn’t be immediately recognizable to most music listeners. My hope is that you can walk away from this albums with at least one “not bad!” moment.
Aura – Saor (2014) (Black metal, Celtic folk)
Scottish black metal project Saor (definition “Free,” pronunciation “say-er”) channels pounding drums, wailing bagpipes and burning guitars into epic Scottish tales of grief, pain, joy, rage and love.
To listen to a Saor song is to feel the cold lash of a rainstorm against your face as lightning strikes the hills around you. I’m ordinarily not a metal fan, but frontman Andy Marshall’s growling, shouted lyrics transcend the genre for me, evoking some kind of primal force within me where nature, poetry, war and pride meet.
To put it simply, if there is ever made an R-rated Lord of The Rings remake, Saor ought to compose the soundtrack .
It’s hard to go wrong with any of Saor’s releases, but their first release “Aura” is a fine place to start. Lose yourself in the marching pride of Children of the Mist, the quiet reflective moments of Aura and the lurching, sorrowful pipes in Pillars of the Earth.
Without My Enemy What Would I Do – Made in Heights (2015) (Pop, hip-hop)
Without question, this is the album I enjoyed the most through college. Made In Heights is – was – a perfect duo, combining the precise-yet-cheeky production of L.A. producer Sabzi (born in Seattle) and the breezy, luscious vocals of L.A. musician Kelsey Bulkin (formerly of Oakland, which factors heavily in her lyrics.)
What makes WMEWWID (whew) so great is that while both musicians bring humor and a sort of carefree energy to the project, they’re both so talented that the tracks come out sounding effortlessly beautiful. Bulkin covers spooky poltergeists to abandoned train stations and yelling in hotel lobbies, but through it all she’s singing about love – demanding love, teasing love, and drawing sexual and ego gratification from love.
There’s almost something meditative, soothing about how the lyrics on this record blend colors and places and feelings into a sort of spiritual soup, as if you took the melted wax from a bunch of scented candles and molded them together.
And then there’s Sabzi’s production – which is so well-aimed and clean that it can at times feel almost machine-like. But he accomplishes a great deal with only a handful of instruments per song, and while most tracks on the record are subdued, there are a few, like Murakami, where he fills out the sound range and injects a rush of life and color.
Some tracks, like Ghosts and Pop It In 2 are fun, funny and near-impossible to avoid dancing to. Meanwhile, tracks like Lunette, Silver Droplets and Cry are like fragile, intricate glass sculptures that are so nocturnal and quiet they sound like they could shatter if picked up too fast. What I’m saying is this album has range. Give it a listen.
Laminate Pet Animal – Snowmine (2011) (Indie rock)
The freshman album from Brooklyn indie-pop-rock group Snowmine is a haunted, chilly, sometimes cinematic take on the “sensitive boy sings in front of a wall of strings” variety of indie music that hit its stride in the late aughts and early 2010s. It’s an album that sounds as though it was conceived at a dim campfire deep in the woods in the middle of the winter.
The standouts of the album are soundtrack-like, using warped and twisted guitar jamming, chilling horns and colorful sound design to create tense and beautiful songs.
Genuinely odd sounds and chords dot the album’s roaring opener, while a thumping beat meets super-chill guitar jamming on “The Hill.” Gorgeous horns and effects open up the anxious “Danger In the Snow!,” and eventually give way to acid-melted guitars and pounding drums that sound like horse-hoof falls.
The closer “Hologram” is a classic of the genre: A six minute spaced-out song about unrequited love, and the anguish and joy of waiting to find the right person. Twinkling strings and bells make it sound as though you’re drifting in orbit, and that’s all before the second half hits. I admit my bias — I first heard this song around the age of 17 — when I say you should turn the lights out, crawl in bed, and listen to it with your best pair of headphones.
Unrelated to the album itself, the band’s free single “Nervous” is very good too. What starts as jaunty, almost convenience-store-theme-esque guitar plucking morphs into a rollicking dance-rock number by the song’s last third.
The Scientific Method, Vol 2 – Professor Kliq (2011) (Electronic, experimental, dance)
Here is an odd one.The second (obviously) in a highly introspective, personal and experimental three-part electronic series, The Scientific Method, Vol 2 is a bit of a brain-tickler for me.
I’ve dabbled in music production here and there, and the carefully programmed tunes on this record remind me of my own mindset when I’m making music: Throw some crazy ideas at the wall, blend in instruments and effects and drum patches until you have a song, and then deconstruct the whole thing with a bit-crusher and a time manipulation plugin.
It’s music made by a music lover. It’s as if an expert film editor made their own movie: the point is the love of the craft, not necessarily making a product everyone will love.
Some songs are fun (My Backpack), some are legitimate bangers (Plastic and Flashing Lights), and some are just weird (Shit for Breakfast). Closer “Sema” brings the record home with a bit of all three.
But you always, always get the feeling that Kliq has brought you into his studio to watch him compose the songs and time every effect and instrument. The songs are skeletal and laid bare for inspection, appreciation, and duplication. This record makes me want to go out to the city, recorder in hand, and sample every bit of humanity I can.