A Closer Listen’s Best Albums of the Decade

The decade is over, and a new one has just begun!  A happy new year to all of our readers.  As we close the book on the old year and put the last decade to bed, we offer one final list: our overall Top 20 Albums of 2010-19.  The top choice was a beautiful surprise that proved an important point: there’s no substitute for a great album, made with head and heart.

While our seven Top 10 lists celebrated the individual, our final Top 20 list honors the group.  After all of the nominations were received, the staff voted on their top picks.  Ambient music ruled the day, representing over a third of the final list, including the top album.  2010-19 was the decade that ambient music exploded (albeit a quiet explosion); our site continues to receive dozens of ambient albums each week!  Now more than ever, we need music to keep us calm, to serve as an antidote to the bombast of politics, the division of societies, and our increasingly fast-paced, ADHD world.

We decided to give our tired reviewers a break, so new blurbs were written for the top two entries only; we hope you’ll forgive us this indulgence so that we can get back to our cookies and champagne!  And now, without further ado, A Closer Listen presents The Best Albums of the Decade!

1. Juliana Barwick ~ The Magic Place (Asthmatic Kitty, 2011)

Our album of the decade came as something of a surprise to even our own writers; indeed, The Magic Place is a sleeper hit if there ever was one. As it was released in early 2011, we’ve had more than enough time to reflect on Julianna Barwick’s wordless, spiritual opus, and yet it still sounds just as perplexingly unexplored nine years later. The mind scans for patterns and formulas, and yet all of the predictable associations— a less sugary/more serious new age, loop-based ambience, even gregorian choral arrangements— dissolve purposively under any scrutiny. Weaving through featherweight flurries of harmony and discrete live instrumentation, Barwick welcomed us to a magic place of unpredictable comfort, a place we all desperately needed through years of sometimes muted, sometimes otherworldly sadness. 

In this place, Barwick’s imperfect (re:human) voice consumes me like the organic horror vacui on the cover, where inseparable green abolishes all hope of a concrete focal point. As with the image, the ever-expanding arrangements bleed into the indescribable—a space to feel and touch but never emulate. You could blandly call it a vessel— a piece of music to attach ones own woes and memories to to make meaning— but isn’t that where all music inevitably transports us? No, The Magic Place draws attention to the peripheral instead of the specific, pulling us out of the center from all directions at once, where we might process a warbled piano note or an added harmony and break down. The place where we end up is about the utter joy and profundity of trying to experience something in totality. It is awe-inspiring, occasionally overwhelming music for overwhelming, occasionally awe-inspiring times.  (Josh Hughes)

 

2. World’s End Girlfriend ~ The Last Waltz (Virgin Babylon, 2016)
Here we are at the end of a decade, yet it feels like the end of the world.  The Last Waltz was released in the year of the Brexit vote and the Trump election, but few people realized at the time just how bad the world would get ~ not that these factors alone are harbingers of the Apocalypse.  Climate change was already in full force before that; child soldiers were pressed into service; nations were starving.  Japan had seen its own share of disasters, most notably the 2011 tsunami (see #11 below).  And so, while The Last Waltz always seemed prescient, it now seems more relevant than ever before.  Many messages may be gleaned from this biggie-sized set, but the most important seems to be:  live and love as if the world were about to end.  (Richard Allen)

 

3. The Caretaker ~ An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (History Always Favours the Winners, 2011)
The Caretaker’s dusty music comes from another time. Fading loops play on and on, emerging from a haunted ballroom where the dance never ends. Draped in the smart attire of old orchestral music and bygone fancies, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World represents Leyland Kirby’s most complete (and coherent) record. The album’s deep crackles speak of worn clothing, as wrinkles steal the familiarity of faces. Eerie undercurrents run deep. The record falls under hauntology, which deals with nostalgia more than spooks ~ a different form of haunting.  But the real nightmare is the poisonous blossoming of dementia, which pokes like a weed through these grooves. (James Catchpole)

 

4. Sarah Davachi ~ Let Night Come On Bells End the Day (Recital, 2018)
With most ambient music, there is something constantly decaying or growing out of nothing, intentionally lulling the listener in and out of concrete attention. We first reviewed Sarah Davachi’s masterpiece Let Night Come On Bells End The Day under our experimental section— where it also appears on this list— perhaps out of its foot-down refusal to adhere to that traditional postulate of slow-burning ambience. Throughout five tracks, Davachi sinks us into a transfixing golden hour that envelops us with the warmth of organs, arpeggios without edges, and disembodied pianos. Instead of drifting through momentous and downtrodden “sections,” the entire work captures a crystalline moment in time, as though it actively freezes your surroundings into a diorama and lets you walk around in that solitary universe. Closing track “Hours In The Evening” perfectly evokes the hyperaware optimism of the record— the desire and brief belief that dusk might last forever, at least for tonight.  (Josh Hughes)

 

5. Ben Lukas Boysen & Sebastian Plano ~ Everything (Erased Tapes, 2017)
Everything (the album) is an immersive experience that matches Everything (the game).  Players may explore life as a seed, or as a rhino, or as a planet.  From micro to macro, the game opens one’s eyes to infinite possibilities.  The 190-minute score is both calming and curious.  While listening, it feels safe to leave one’s comfort zone, even to travel outside the earth’s atmosphere.  One feels a tremendous sense of connection: at one with other creatures, indeed the universe.  For over three hours, cares just seem to drift away, and after one exits, one can’t wait to return.  Everything offers a vision of benign reality. Such encouragement cannot be overstated.  (Richard Allen)

 

6.  Tim Hecker ~ Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky, 2011)
In the early 2010s, experimental artists like Ben Frost and Tim Hecker found themselves pushed to the forefront of an ambient resurgence— a growing genre of mutilated, disintegrating sounds battling out their original, “natural” timbre. Ravedeath, 1972 was the arguable apotheosis of this golden age of drone, with its relentless chill and reconfigured, battle-bruised organ screams. Recorded by Frost in the Fríkirkjan church in Reykjavík, Iceland, the album deftly combines the incorruptible tones of live piano and pipe organ with the unwavering wrath of processed texture and digital and tape manipulation. “The Piano Drop” prologues the record with the terrifying, corroded noise of a machine trying to cheat its own obsolescence, but as time goes on, Hecker loosens the machine’s grip to let us hear the beauty and occasional quiet of erosion. Like the iconic album art that situates it, Ravedeath, 1972 is bursting with a violent tension that we are never granted access to but only given profound implications of.  (Josh Hughes)

 

7. Oneohtrix Point Never ~ Replica (Software Recording Co., 2011)
Given Daniel Lopatin’s current position as a multimedia artist and soundtrack producer, it’s difficult to fathom that in the early days of Oneohtrix Point Never, he was part of the vaporwave / chillwave / hypnagogic pop trend, mining the 1980s infomercials and new age music for fresh inspiration. It all seemed to make sense back then, but Lopatin developed his sound through what I tend to call the R trilogy. Starting with Returnal on Editions Mego, he then recorded Replica for Mexican Summer before signing to Warp for R Plus Seven. We could have chosen any of these three, but its 2011’s Replica that arguably has its nose ahead. It is a wonderfully inventive work, rattling through a variety of compositional approaches and arrangements, often within the same track. Yes, there are moments when it sits squarely within the vaporwave sound, so much that you could subconsciously roll up your suit sleeves while listening to it, but much of Replica sees Lopatin pushing on, dabbling in delicate melodies and lush synth pads. He would continue to evolve as OPN but he might not make another album with as much charm. (Jeremy Bye)

 

8. Max Richter ~ Sleep (Deutsche Grammophon, 2015)
Sleep takes a long, serious look at sleep and the desire to sleep.  Concert attendees had a major choice to make: would they try to stay awake for 8 hours, or would they allow (or challenge) the orchestra to put them to sleep?  To some, the album might be used as a sleep aid (although one is better served by selecting highlights than by playing the full set).  But while the album is ambient, it is also intensely musical, serving up exquisite highlights such as “Return 2” and “nor earth, nor boundless sea” ~ ironically, music worth the extra cup of coffee and the attempt to stay awake.  The release was ambitious, but the extra effort resulted in a classic long-form composition.  (Richard Allen)

9. Petrels ~ Haeligewielle (Tartaruga, 2011; reissued by Denovali 2012)
This album is about stories as well as sound: a diver working to strengthen the foundations of a city, a king who cannot hold back the tide.  In “Canute,” the music follows suit, bursting through the barrier and rising to unforeseen levels of volume.  A great variety of timbre is on display, including songs that serve as elegies to figures long lost.  Oliver Barrett may have left Bleeding Heart Narrative behind, but the narrative and heart are still apparent.  This holy well is filled with life-giving water.  (Richard Allen)

 

10. Ian William Craig ~ A Turn of Breath (Recital, 2014; Extended Version 2019)
As one of the most consistent entrants in our year-end lists, Ian William Craig simply had to feature among our favourites of the decade. The opera singer’s debut LP from 2014 is the work of vocal experimentation and soulful elevation. With a single, almost wordless voice dominating and mesmerising, plus reel-to-reel tape and the tentative intrusion of synths and acoustic guitar, he seems to give voice to the human spirit itself, in all its inchoate fragility. The effects and filters to which this voice is subject signify the trappings and travails of today’s technological world ~ the distance we now enforce between us for our increasing reliance on machines to communicate, depriving us of face-to-face connection, the nuance of fleeting glance and gesture of hand. What long-term suffering to our souls, this removal of the personal? Yet by A Turn of Breath’s close, entire passages of words have become discernible, completing the soul’s transcendence with the message: we will prevail. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

 

11. Anoice ~ The Black Rain (Ricco, 2012)
In 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake caused not only a tsunami, but meltdowns in Fukushima; in all, over 10,000 died.  This horrible tragedy continues to have a hold on the public consciousness.  Anoice was involved in fundraisers immediately after the event, and their sorrow led to these compositions; their closeness to the event is palpable.  By fusing great drama with great sensitivity, the band provided a definitive score to the events of 3/11/11, making The Black Rain one of the most important post-rock albums ever produced.  A bookend, Ghost in the Clocks, was released in 2019.  (Richard Allen)

 

12. Matana Roberts ~ Coin Coin Chapter Three: river run thee (Constellation, 2015)
Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin project is now on its fourth installment, and shows no signs of weakening.  As racial tension runs rampant throughout the United States, interest in insightful dialogue remains high; and Roberts makes a perfect spokeswoman.  Blending tradition, history, hopes and ideals, she paints an elegant painting in sound.   river run thee is a quilt of conviction, a tapestry of interlocking genres and a musical masterpiece.  The album demands engagement, and leaves behind no passive listener.  We don’t know what the next decade will hold, but we know who we trust to tell its story.  (Richard Allen)

 

13. Huerco S. ~ For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) (Proibito, 2016)
We obviously like Brian Leeds at ACL, we just don’t like talking about him. He has scored two albums in this list, which is pretty good going as we’ve never actually reviewed any of his releases. Consider this making amends: you can read about Pendant below. That was preceded a couple of years earlier by Leeds releasing For Those… under his Huerco S. guise, a lush, blissful excursion ideal for late night / early morning listening. The arrangements tend toward the hazy; although Leeds does underpin much of this album with a subtle pulse, there’s no sense of the other instruments being locked into a groove, which gives the tracks here a shimmering, intangible quality. Both beatless and beatific, For Those… is an album that shuns many of the tools of techno production whilst producing a comparable state of euphoria. (Jeremy Bye)

 

14. Daniel Bjarnason ~ Processions (Bedroom Community, 2010)
While visiting Iceland a decade ago, I picked up a disc from Ísafold Chamber Orchestra that contained a remarkable two-part suite titled “all sounds to silence come,” from conductor Daníel Bjarnason.  The piece was unlike anything I’d ever heard, as if beamed over from an alternate reality.  When Bjarnason released Processions, the future arrived, with Penderecki-like staccato strings and a tenderness all too rare in modern composition.  Since then, the composer has gone on to release numerous other albums, and attention to Icelandic composers have bloomed: Valgeir Sigurðsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, to name but a few.  But this is where it all began; and now “all sounds to silence come” has found a new home as well, tucked away as a digital bonus.  (Richard Allen)

 

15. Scott Walker & Sunn O))) ~ Soused (4AD, 2014)
It took a while, but it seems that Scott Walker finally found a record label that understood him when he signed to 4AD. It benefited both sides: 4AD were able to underline their status as an artist-focused rather than profit-driven label and Walker enjoyed his most prolific creative outpouring since his first five releases. Having seemingly settled into a pattern of one album every 11 years, Scott released an unprecedented four albums and three soundtracks between 2006 and his death in 2019. Soused is arguably the highlight of this run: for the newcomer, it’s certainly the most accessible with Sunn O)))’s barrage of drone metal guitar drones replacing the orchestrations of previous albums. Walker’s voice, which had evolved into an enthralling register, leaving his crooner days far behind, fitted the Sunn O))) sound more effectively than the arrangements on some of his other solo work: it seemed a match made in experimental rock heaven. Walker’s lyrics remained abstract, but there is less need to leaf through the lyric book when your brain is being gently pummelled by Anderson and O’Malley’s guitars: rather than delving into the life of Zercon or the death of Mussolini, let the drone do the heavy lifting. The real shame is a mooted second collaboration never got off the ground: Soused stands as a creative high point for two remarkable artists. (Jeremy Bye)

16. Michael Price ~ Entanglement (Erased Tapes, 2015)
In 2015 Michael Price’s first major work as a solo artist, after almost two decades involved with film soundtracks, captivated a number of us at A Closer Listen ~ and still does today. Across a spellbinding set of modern composition shrouded in the dust of the past, the composer evokes different landscapes, cultures and eras across nine distinct pieces. Positioned as though a record discovered in an old German record store, Entanglement carries strong echoes of the past but in truth floats atop timeless winds, with arpeggiated synth lines and mobile phone recordings coming across as enchanting anachronisms amidst the dominating chamber sections and female soprano. In pieces such as “The Attachment” and “Little Warm Thing” does drama of such richness and complexity unfurl, yet despite Price’s background this does not come across as overtly cinematic or removed; Entanglement is at once dramatic and intimate, both heartbreaking and life-affirming. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

 

17. Grouper ~ A | A : Alien Observer (Yellow Electric, 2011)
This decade’s ambient has had no shortage of experimental adventures, among which Grouper stands as one of its most representative artists. Her releases have been consistently powerful and moving, but it is in the A I A double album from 2011 where the melancholic core of the decade traces a soft, faint pulse. A dreamy, bubbling echo of a sadness silent (Alien Observer) ebbs into a dread so vital it can only be expressed in the fading away of inner seas (Dream Loss); the opaqueness of this work, one that affirms the dissolution of each sound as it is heard, speaks to the pre-verbal qualities of ambient, its sprawling network of self-destructive drones. A I A brings the unconscious, present all the way back in music made with furniture, to the fore, all those silences in a world that’s now revealed as fragile as a synapse coming to articulate the most appropriate response: an existential grief intimately laced with the possibility of change. After all, A I A seems like longing, but not for the uncertain past or for a future that will never be – it is a longing for the here and now, a longing to live. (David Murrieta Flores)

 

18. Richard Skelton ~ Verse of Birds (Aeolian, 2012)
If there’s one word to describe Richard Skelton’s work it’s care. There’s a lot of care put into every element of his output, whether it’s a steady stream of CDs, or his art, or the publications through Corbel Stone Press run with his wife Autumn Richardson. When you experience one of his albums, your appreciation is often broadened by additional texts and multi-layered artwork all working together to position the music to a time and location: to provide, in a way, a story behind the inspiration. Verse Of Birds, which was released in two editions with different designs, was created whilst they lived in the west of Ireland although you don’t need to know that to sense that it is imbued with windswept textures. But a little background detail assists appreciation. The first disc stands on the cliff-top and faces down the rain and the ocean, the second looks inland and upward to watch the birds in flight, and in conflict. The listener sits in awe at the effortless manner these images are evoked. It’s another masterpiece from an artist who has a few to his name. (Jeremy Bye)

 

19. Esmerine ~ Dalmak (Constellation, 2013)
A mere two years after 2011’s La Lechuza, the ever-evolving Esmerine delighted with a fourth LP that has transpired to be my favourite post-rock record of the decade. But to call Dalmak ‘post-rock’ is to do it a disservice. The then-expanded Esmerine line-up took inspiration from a temporary residency in Istanbul, and the city’s influence looms large, casting a richly woven pall over proceedings. And so a meditative atmosphere prevails across the nine tracks, most of which were recorded in Istanbul itself in collaboration with four local musicians. Eastern instruments such as the darbuka and saz add an exotic layer over the stalwart marimba and cello (plus the additions the extra members bring). Even at its most pulsating and layered, however, as in the intoxicating groove of “Barn Board Fire”, the composition is disciplined and the production spacious ~ somehow drawing from the many the band’s defining sense of minimalism. It is the band’s sensitive assimilation of eastern and western instruments that begets the album’s richness and allure. As implied by the middle track, “Hayale Dalmak”, to listen to it is truly to fall into glorious daydream. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

 

20. Caterina Barbieri ~ Ecstatic Computation (Editions Mego, 2019)
While lists usually benefit from hindsight, it is with enthusiasm that I think a recent release like Ecstatic Computation earned its place among the decade’s greatest. Surrounded by other extremely interesting approaches to the exploration of the very programming of electronic music, Barbieri’s album stands out for its historically-minded conceptual simplicity and its consequent clarity. The synthesizer joins the algorithm and the most human of instruments – the voice – in the assembly of a machine for extreme feeling, a surrealist object that destabilizes the separations between its elements. In a decade of automatic immersion into the everyday discipline of instrumental reason (the actual black mirror before our eyes), the transparent intent of a cybernetic psychedelia that accounts for a lot of the developments in past electronic music seems, if anything, fresh, relevant, even potentially subversive – an inspiration for the decade to come. (David Murrieta Flores)

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