Lists are dumb, no one likes them, who cares what you think anyway guy, blah blah blah.
Unlike previous years, in part because of this whole “medical crisis” thing, I didn’t participate in either the year-end or decade-end list-making for websites I contribute to. I had more or less vowed not to, because it’s all pretty boring and, if you know me, you probably know what I like. But after spending a lot of time in hospitals and waiting rooms and airports and cars and all these other places where I have nothing to do but stare into the void that is my phone, I decided that maybe I should just go ahead and do it for the sake of putting some good energy out into the world after a few months that haven’t afforded me much of that.
I figured I’d put together a list of things—unranked—that have really moved me during the course of this decade. I’ll probably drop in a bunch of other stuff at the bottom, but I’m just going to work chronologically and we’ll see what this ends up looking like. This list is also just going to be records I enjoyed that I have something to say about. There are plenty of albums that I’ve either already talked about enough, or simply have nothing more to offer than, “Yeah, that was pretty good,” and there’s not much point in doing that.
I’d also like to note that I’ve been writing about myself a lot these past few months and that’s really weird. I hope that, in 2020, I’ll be able to do a little more writing that isn’t focused solely on myself. But, with the decade ending and that being a big symbolic thing, I might as well indulge in that practice one more time.
Grown Ups, More Songs (2010)
As much as I may love it—and occasionally hate it—I’m endlessly proud of The Region, that little slice of Northwest Indiana that might as well be an extension of Chicago. It’s full of steel mills and boarded-up buildings, and a punk scene that’s in constant flux. While I haven’t lived there in a decade, it will always be part of me. It will always be my home.
The first time I saw Grown Ups play I didn’t know who they were. It was a Monday night and there was a show at Cisa Studios, a short-lived all-ages space that was shutdown after, rumor has it, a bunch of skinheads jumped a guy and knocked all the teeth out of his mouth. On this particular evening, the bands were Like Bats, Erfert, Grown Ups, and Daylight (who became Superheaven a few years later). Cisa was a pretty big room, and while my memory may be slightly off, I remember someone saying that six people paid to get into the show. Given the fact that there weren’t even enough people to fill in the front of the stage, that’s probably right.
The bassist of Like Bats, Kyle, came up to talk to me and asked if I’d heard Grown Ups yet. I’d heard the name, but I hadn’t actually heard them. I’ll never forget what he said: “It’s like Blink-182 playing American Football songs. And kind of like Latterman, too.” I was sold. And once they played, I was all in. Oh, and a fun little aside, Kyle would end up joining Grown Ups a couple years later and playing on their final EP. Funny how things work out, huh?
I bought their EP, Songs, that night, and to say that I was obsessed with it would be an understatement. I listened to that tape endlessly until it got stoled out my car, and I saw Grown Ups every chance I got. More often than not, the shows were sparsely attended. But, slowly, the rooms started to fill up more and more. By the time they released their only album, the brilliantly titled More Songs, the release show was basically a festival, and the turnout mimicked that.
Despite its shoddy production—Matt Allison really was out of his element here—More Songs reminds me of what it felt like to be a hopeful Region Rat, the kind that needed something, anything, to attach himself too. More Songs was that record. It’s a record that, for all its flaws, was the best of all the emo albums released during this era. I remember reviewing it for a blog and then naming it my album of the year, and I still stand by that. It was everything I needed back then, and now, on days when I long for home, it’s what I put on to take me right back there.
Long live The Region. Long live Grown Ups.
Snowing, I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted (2010)
Snowing’s Fuck Your Emotional Bullshit isn’t only a perfect album title, but one of the most potent EPs released in the first-wave of the emo revival. I remember when the band finally released their full-length, I Could Do Whatever I Wanted If I Wanted, that the reaction was lukewarm, but I never understood that. Sure, I think the record sounds kind of flat, but that just made me love it even more. There’s an ugly intimacy to Snowing that always spoke to me, as John’s lyrics were so brutally confrontational you almost had to laugh just to break up the awkwardness of hearing them. In “Could Be Better Forever,” the album’s closing track, he offers up some of his best lines, one of which I think about with an alarming regularity: “My dad died / Like his dad died / And I know some day I’ll die / But I’m alive.” He says that last part, “But I’m alive,” in a way that’s dripping with jealousy and just a dash of appreciation, and it’s one of the most startling things I’ve ever heard on an emo record. Snowing made blunt music but packaged it in a way that was still frenetic and fun, and that’s a pretty hard thing to pull off.
Everyone Everywhere, Everyone Everywhere (2010)
Wow, another emo record, who would have thought. Well, you know what, it’s just as great as the other ones I’m including so shut up. Everyone Everywhere may not be the first band people bring up when they talk about this era of emo, but they deserve to be. Their songwriting was airtight, the production of Everyone Everywhere was crisp but not overproduced, and the lyrics were never the least bit overwrought. If you can listen to “Tiny Planet” and not immediately want to hear the rest of this record, then you’re a person I just can’t relate to.
Algernon Cadwallader, Parrot Flies (2011)
Similar to that Snowing album, when the second Algernon record came out, I remember people being kind of down on it. But, to me, it felt like the moment they finally transcended their influences. Some Kind Of Cadwallader is good, but Parrot Flies is great. The fact they open the record with a six-minute track that’s mostly a repetitive jam is a bold move, and that’s merely the start of the creative leaps they take here. Pitchfork said liking Parrot Flies more than Some Kind Of Cadwallader is “the contrarian’s choice,” and while I get what you’re saying Ian, I could not possibly disagree more.
Hop Along, Get Disowned (2012)
If I’m being totally honest with you, I think that Hop Along’s last album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, might be their best one. That record was a real slow burn for me, but my god that thing is packed full of hooks that totally slipped past me those first few listens. It’s easily their most underrated record, and it’s the one I reach for most now. But in 2012, Get Disowned changed my entire world. I listened to this thing daily for a few months, and seeing them during this time period felt truly revelatory (you can see a sweat-soaked, baby version of me in this [also, look at the lineup for this fucking show]). There’s not much that can be said about Hop Along that hasn’t already been repeated a few dozen times, so I’ll just finish by saying that if you asked me what the best song released this decade was, I’d say “Tibetan Pop Stars.” It’s perfect.
Pile, Dripping (2012)
The fact that Pile released five albums, several singles (put together on the Odds & Ends collection), and a live record, all in this decade feels like a goddamn joke. Depending on the day, any of them could be my favorite release of theirs, but as I went to type this out, my pick became clear—it has to be Dripping. I have the old guy on the album cover tattooed on my arm, and I think that really says it all.
I remember something that Ben from C.H.E.W. said about touring with Pile earlier this year, and I think about it whenever Pile is brought up in conversation. He said watching Pile play “Baby Boy” every night was like watching people react to Nirvana playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Dismiss it as hyperbole if you want, but I think there’s truth in that. Every time I see Pile, the crowd grows a little larger, the response from the audience becomes a little more intense, and the band always sounds better. Some people say Pile’s records don’t do their live show justice, but I think Dripping captures who they are as a band. It’s dirty and gross, and it sounds like it was recorded in a sweatbox practice space because that’s all they could afford. It’s desperate and reactionary, a completely authentic representation of the people who made it and the circumstances they were in at that moment in time. Sure, it’d be nice to hear Pile get in a room with a big budget and big producer, but that’s antithetical to what this band is about. Their imperfections are part of them, just like the rest of us. Only, unlike everyone else, Pile aren’t afraid to put those things on display for the world to see.
Julien Baker, Sprained Ankle (2015)
I’ve written about Julien Baker a lot since Sprained Ankle came out, and the fact I still have something to say about this record is honestly shocking to me. But I still remember where I was the first time I heard these songs and how raw and intense it all felt. I listened to this album endlessly, because it was something that came into my life at the exact right moment. I can’t say that I’ve played it in a year or two, as hearing those songs just brings all those feelings right back to the surface, but I love knowing that it’s there for me when I need it. But, unlike everything else on this list, I hope I don’t feel the need to play it for a very long time.
Jeff Rosenstock, WORRY. (2016)
The fact I didn’t include Bomb The Music Industry’s Vacation on this list is a testament to the strength of WORRY. There’s a lot to love here, be it the infectious pop songs up top or the pile-up of tracks on the B-side that rush into one another and gleefully dart between genres, but at its core, WORRY. is just an honest representation of what it’s felt like to exist this past decade. There’s anger and pain and sadness, but a little bit of joy poking through all of it, reminding you that there’s got to be something good in the midst of all this chaos. Though “Wave Goodnight To Me” is about gentrification, I can’t help but think of how the line, “They’re pushing you out in the name of progress / Selling your memories to the tourists,” is endlessly applicable to the modern world. Everything from our faces to our data is now collected and available for whoever wants it, everything about us now monetizable, and there’s no sign of that stopping. That idea can feel very defeating and bleak, but when I listen to WORRY., I actually feel like that can be overcome. Maybe that’s naive, but it’s nice to have something that makes me believe in the possibility of a better world for a minute.
John K. Samson, Winter Wheat (2016)
In 2017, I quit my job. That wouldn’t normally be such a huge deal, but it was my dream job, and, for a multitude of reasons, I was totally burned out. I’d always wanted to be the music editor at a publication, and for a little while, that’s what I got to do. But I started to hate it, and when a different offer came up, I decided to take it. That job proved to be a good bit of snake oil so, before long, I started freelancing full-time. In less than six months, everything about my life had changed, and I immediately felt the effects of it mentally.
One of the biggest lies people of my generation have been told is that if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. Pure. Fucking. Bullshit. I loved what I did, but I got paid next to nothing, worked 14-hours a day, and had nothing to show for it aside from a surly disposition and loads of stress. What was even worse than all that, the job made me start hating music, the thing I’d cared about as long as I could remember.
In the midst of that, John K. Samson, frontman of The Weakerthans, released Winter Wheat. At first, I didn’t love it. But, as I struggled with what it meant to tie my identity and self-worth to a job, then left that job for an even shittier one, the record’s message began to sink in. Songs like “Select All Delete” and “Postdoc Blues” explore what it means to exist in a world where we’re constantly available, shuffling from meeting to meeting and board room to board room with nothing to show for it aside from an ever-growing list of tasks that we execute in silence, alone. We talk to people five feet away from us over Slack and complain when they make a noise. We’ve been sold the illusion of freedom and told we must give ourselves to a company fully, for only then will we be complete. Everyone we know is having the best time ever on Instagram, and you’re at home alone, exhausted, feeling guilty about everything you’ve said “no” to this week.
It was a cycle that was hard to break out of for me, but I’m glad I went through it. At the very least, I found a rallying cry for when I get too tied up in these meaningless, theoretical pursuits: Select all, delete.
Touché Amoré, Stage Four (2016)
It’s weird to write about records your friends made, but that’s what I’m going to try to do here.
I think every Touché Amoré release has been great, but the experience of hearing Stage Four that first time will always stick with me. For those unaware, the record is about Jeremy’s mother dying of cancer and the grieving process that followed. There’s a song on the record called “Eight Seconds” about Touché Amoré playing Fest in Gainesville and then Jeremy walking off stage and learning his mom had passed away. I was at that show, and the day prior, in the Orlando airport, after exchanging emails a few times, I’d met Jeremy for the first time.
Similarly, when I heard Stage Four, I was sitting in an Airbnb in Brooklyn with my mom as she slept in the other room. Years prior, my mom had been diagnosed with cancer and beat it. She’d never been to New York City before and always wanted to go, so, with a clean bill of health, we decided it was finally time to make that happen. Earlier that day, we’d done a ton of sightseeing, taking ferries past the Statue of Liberty and going to the top of the Empire State Building, along with a bunch of other things that were totally exhausting. And as I sat in that Airbnb, and the closing song “Skyscraper” began to play, it became clear this was a song about Jeremy taking his mom to New York City to see all the things she’d always wanted to see before she passed on.
I sat there in awestruck silence, focused solely on the strange, cosmic synchronicity of it all. I’d already liked Stage Four, but this moment ensured that it’d always mean something to me, something that would sound totally trite if said aloud to people. I fired off an email to Jeremy, one that was probably too long and personal, thanking him for the album, and explaining where I was when I heard it. In many ways, I’ve felt too close to this album to ever write about it, and this may be the only time I ever do. But I’m thankful for the people in this band and the art they produce. I always will be.
Oranssi Pazuzu, Värähtelijä (2016)
Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu have been honing their craft for years, and their most recent album Värähtelijä, saw them finally nail that mix of black metal, kraut-rock, and psych-rock. Like the rest of post-metal’s elite, the songs are long and lumbering, but there’s an openness to the material that’s really refreshing. Listening on headphones, you aren’t beat over the head with distorted ugliness, but instead sucked into an orb that’s spacious and disorienting, like a drug trip that’s always just on the verge of turning bad. Getting to see this band play on their first U.S. tour a little while back was a testament to their no-nonsense approach. There were no stage costumes or gimmicks, just a few Finnish dudes ripping through song after song without a break. It was punishing and primal, but progressive in a way that feels indicative of why metal has been so deeply engaging this decade.
C.H.E.W., Feeding Frenzy (2018)
C.H.E.W. is everything I want in a hardcore band. They self-describe as being Crass played by early-’80s west coast punks, and that’s totally spot-on, so I won’t try to improve upon it. But what I will say is that every release of theirs has been better than the last, and their live show is truly impressive. In many ways, C.H.E.W. feels like the antidote to many of Chicago hardcore’s less attractive qualities. Unlike a lot of bands that I’d slot under the demo-core moniker, C.H.E.W. isn’t afraid to step outside of the prescribed boundaries the scene has set, allowing for their music—and their approach to their band—to be openly ambitious. They don’t turn their noses up at playing big shows, much less playing on bills with bands outside their genre, and it’s that willingness to explore new territories that typifies Feeding Frenzy. Every member has a distinct personality, and they all bleed into these songs, allowing C.H.E.W. to create something that’s unlike any of their peers. I hope they never stop.
YOB, Our Raw Heart (2018)
I’ve written about my journey with YOB before, but I still have more to say about them. Having seen them play a couple times over the past few months, I’ve been struck by the band’s joyous humanism, the kind that’s present on the records, but is downright transcendent live. I feel lucky to have gotten into this band now, at a time when I needed it most. Our Raw Heart went from a record that left me cold to one of my most played albums just a year later, and I couldn’t be happier about that fact. Few doom bands make the quiet parts of their songs just as captivating as the big, loud moments, but YOB does that better than most anyone, and “Beauty In Falling Leaves” is perhaps their most masterful display of that. As I leave behind the chaos, I’ll be happy to have these songs guiding me forward.
Mindforce, Excalibur (2018)
2018 was a stacked year for hardcore releases, but aside from maybe Turnstile’s Time & Space (haters be damned), Excalibur is probably the most fun record of the whole bunch. These songs are huge, taking Iron Maiden-esque, New Wave Of British Heavy Metal riffs and putting them into the classic framework of ‘90s hardcore. This could easily be a mess in lesser hands, but man, this scratches an itch in a way few things do. Mindforce really walk a tightrope here, and they pull it off better than almost anyone else. When Jay screams “I FEEL THE FIRE” during that first break in “Excalibur,” it’s a moment of pure unification that, even when I’m listening to the record at home, will get me to throw my hands up right along with him.
Death Fortress, Reign Of The Unending (2018)
While I could see someone who doesn’t like metal putting on an Oranssi Pazuzu record and finding things to like about it, that’s definitely not going to happen with Death Fortress. Off a recommendation from my friend Jim, I checked out this band and immediately became obsessed, tracking down every release of theirs I could. This is top-tier black metal (or maybe blackened death metal but who gives a shit), the kind that never relents and sounds like there’s a war being waged inside your skull.
What strikes me about Death Fortress is how they essentially keep making the same record, but they do it a little better each go-round. These New Jersey weirdos have put out an album each of the last three years, and with Reign Of The Unending quietly being unleashed at the end of 2018, I’m hoping that they’ll do something similar this year. Reign Of The Unending is perhaps their most melodic and catchy release yet, and while that often means a band has lost their bite, Death Fortress never, ever let up. If you want to feel like you’re riding across a barren wasteland into battle while also having your skin ripped off by a very large, angry demon, you should listen to Death Fortress.
Laura Stevenson, The Big Freeze (2019)
Laura Stevenson has not put out a bad album this decade, but, to me, The Big Freeze is the best of all of them. There are moments on this record that, from the very first time I heard them, all the way up to now, still choke me up. “Hawks,” the album’s shortest song, is the one that hits me hardest, as it’s a simple little love song that’s also about memory loss. After watching my grandmother succumb to Alzheimer’s, the thought of no longer being able to retain who you are or what you love is a deeply terrifying thought to me, and the way Laura expresses it here really nails it. The Big Freeze is a perfect record from a person who already has a few of them in her catalog, and it’s one I truly can’t recommend enough.
Mannequin Pussy, Patience (2019)
When I first heard “Drunk II,” the first single from Mannequin Pussy’s third album Patience, my initial reaction was, “Fuck. Not them too.” Over the past few years, I’ve watched many bands with genuinely interesting sounds and perspectives pivot toward pop music. That’s all well and good, because pop music can be great, but also, the pop-pivot has become an incredibly trite move, and the critical narrative about pop music being high art is no different. While I have enjoyed plenty of pop records as much as the next person, the need to defend literally the most popular version of something has never made much sense to me, much less how people can see moving toward that style as some kind of brave, artistic decision.
But for all my misbegotten worries, Patience proves a band can write these gigantic hooks without sacrificing their personality. “Drunk II,” if not for all the swears, could easily be a radio hit—and if the band’s name wasn’t Mannequin Pussy, I guess. But alongside it are some of the their most subtle, nuanced songs, and a couple with heavy, driving riffs that could have been pulled straight from a Torche record. At a brisk 10-tracks, Patience is an album that required exactly that from me. The older I get, the more I want those kinds of albums, the kind that don’t simply follow some accepted pathway forward and are willing to take actual risks. I wish that was the kind of thing people got excited about.
Blood Incantation, Hidden History Of The Human Race (2019)
For years, I never liked death metal. I tried Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation as a kid and thought it was boring garbage (and I still do). It’d take a few years for me to find things that actually connected, like Morbid Angel and Gorguts, bands that seemed to take a sideways approach to the sound while still writing some truly ignorant riffs, too. The first time I heard Blood Incantation, they were the opener on a show and, within minutes, I already knew I was going to run to their merch table and buy everything they had as soon as their set finished. I did exactly that.
Hidden History Of The Human Race, the band’s second album, is probably the biggest metal release this year. I’ve called it Sunbather for death metal, not because it’s some big crossover thing, but because people I know who wouldn’t listen to any other death metal band have found something to like here. I took the train to Joliet just to see them play the songs from this album live because, aside from a couple shows, they’re using 2020 to focus on their other band, Spectral Voice, instead. Regardless of all the hype and handwringing about this record, the fact remains that Blood Incantation are the best of all the old-school death metal bands currently going. And much like C.H.E.W., they aren’t afraid to take whatever opportunity that comes their way, even if it means purists are going to be all salty about it.
In 2019, this is the record I felt most excited about and listened to the most. I fucking bought Blood Incantation sweatpants and a long-sleeve at the show in Joliet, effectively making it so I can walk around in Blood Incantation pajamas. There’s no other band I’ve ever done that for. Hidden History Of The Human Race explains why.
Here are some other records that I feel strongly about but either wrote about too many times before or just didn’t have much to say about. They are still worth your time: The Armed, Only Love; Bell Witch, Mirror Reaper; Bone Sickness, Theater Of Morbidity; Candy, Good To Feel; Cerebral Rot, Odious Descent Into Decay; Classics Of Love, Classics Of Love; City Hunter, Deep Blood; Kevin Devine, Bubblegum; Drug Church, Cheer; Fiddlehead, Springtime & Blind; Full Of Hell, Trumpeting Ecstasy; Grouper, The Man Who Died In His Boat; Hard Girls, A Thousand Surfaces; Immortal Bird, Thrive On Neglect; Joan Of Arc, Life Like; Krallice, Ygg Huur; Krill, Lucky Leaves; LVL UP, Return To Love; Meat Wave, Meat Wave; Melkbelly, Nothing Valley; The Menzingers, On The Impossible Past; mewithoutYou, [Untitled]; Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me; Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, DROOL; Panopticon, Roads To The North; PUP, The Dream Is Over; Radiator Hospital, Something Wild; Regional Justice Center, World Of Inconvenience; The Repos, Poser; Restraining Order, This World Is Too Much; Sensual World, Feeling Wild; The Sidekicks, Runners In The Nerved World; Slaughter Beach, Dog, Birdie; Slow Mass, On Watch; Sumac, Love In Shadow; Thou, Heathen; Turnstile, Time & Space; Yeesh, Confirmation Bias.