It's hard to fathom just how much can change over the course of ten years. Ten years ago, I was 16. My biggest concern was keeping up with my AP Euro readings and balancing track and tennis practice. At night, I'd sit down at the table with my family and eat the meal my mom prepared for everyone.
Now, I walk to the subway every weekday morning from my Brooklyn apartment. Inevitably, I'm running 10 minutes late, having waited too long to take out my dog, Monet. For his part, he always takes his time doing his business. Me waking up on time isn't his problem, after all.
But, of course, it's more than these circumstantial elements that have evolved over the last ten years. And as I look back at the person I was and the person I've become, I can see the hand music had in carrying me here.
So, here they are. The ten albums that most influenced me over the past ten years. It's my own hybrid of a decade reflection and a "top albums of the decade" list.
“The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire (2010)
I came across this album at my university library and rented it for my four-hour drive home. As I drove, I felt myself melt into a completely different world, one that overtook me for the 63-minute running time.
It was the first concept album I spent time with and maybe one of the first albums that allowed me to appreciate how much effort and forethought could go into a musical project. Each song fed into the next. Every word carried weight. And sonically, it was masterful. From the urgent violins that open “Empty Rooms” to the staccato piano in “We Used to Wait,” I was completely captivated.
And thematically, it resonated. Songs like "We Used to Wait" fed my desire for a simpler time, when life moved more slowly.
It seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what's stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive
Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure could last
I can still feel this longing today.
“Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes (2011)
Anyone who knows me could probably guess that this album falls on my list. Fleet Foxes have traveled with me everywhere. From the streets of Paris to cafes in Florence to a bus ride through Switzerland, mountains rising on either side of me.
My love for them also brought me to Dublin, the closest venue I could find to finally see them play, while I lived in London. Even my Spotify Wrapped named them my artist of the decade.
So, it’s only fitting that two of their albums fall on my list, this being the first.
Cue the accusations of young angst, but there was a time when I thought the title track for this album encompassed everything I stood for. I never felt so understood by a song.
“Helplessness Blues” carefully balances the narrator’s ideals with the continued admittance that there are things he has yet to figure out.
Like him, I know what I stand for, I know I want to be part of a bigger picture, or “a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me/ But I don't, I don't know what that will be.”
There’s skepticism and there’s hope. There’s longing for a simple answer and a simple life—a life on an orchard, built by your own two hands.
Beyond this song, the other tracks hold as well. They paint stories and tales that hold truths and subtle feelings. From the question of why you love despite reservations to reflecting on the fact that you are the same age your parents were when they had their first child, they touch on thoughts I like to push away, throwing them on the table and forcing you to examine them out in the open.
“Dead & Born & Grown,” The Staves (2012)
The Staves were an especially transformative discovery. Most of my listening catalogue up until this point had been male vocalists—from the Beatles to Cage the Elephant to John Mayer in early high school.
But these three women were like nothing I’d listened to. They were articulate and poetic and their tight harmonies pulled me in with every song. If it’s possible to sound like sun streaming through a window, they did.
It was not just the way they sounded, but what they seemed to stand for. I found them in college, when I was only beginning to understand my own identity as a woman. Up until that point, I’d not only listened to primarily male artists, but I felt I more closely identified with men.
My primary goal in life wasn’t a marriage, but the pursuit of my writing. I felt misunderstood by a society that wanted to stick me in a box when I was younger—push me toward princess movies (which I didn’t care for), pink (which I despised) and a childhood of playing house (something that interested me far less than climbing a tree).
But these women, they were like me. In "Pay Us No Mind," they wanted to yell.
I never needed sympathy, I only want to say
That I’m not afraid to shout, I’m not afraid to tell
And we’re ready now to give them all hell
And in "In The Long Run," they normalized my feelings of hesitancy when it came to being with a man.
But we can’t be lovers
‘Cause I’m still afraid
Of leaving the things I love dearly
To this day, I’m thankful to The Staves. When I listened to their music, I didn’t feel like there was something wrong with me as a woman. There are so many different types of women out there, and hearing the perspective of those who thought like me, was exactly what I needed.
“Let’s Be Still,” The Head and the Heart (2013)
Sometimes an album finds you at the right time and in the right place. And for me, that was this album. It fell into my lap during my sophomore year, a year that was one of my most difficult.
I remember one late night drive in Nashville. I was going nowhere in particular, but needed to drive. The rain drops that snaked down my windshield looked like tears as I allowed a few of my own to fall.
I wanted to scream the lyrics as they played.
I was burned out and lost
There's no light in here now
And the nighttime was the worst
There's no light in here now
I was burned out and lost
As this album played, I let it wash over me. It was both melancholy and hopeful. It felt my pain, but promised there was a door beyond it.
The sun still rises
Even with the pain
I can still remember how lost I felt when I listened to this album. It was a difficult year, but I eventually found those words to be true. The sun still rose. Even through my pain.
“North Americana,” Leif Vollebekk (2014)
I discovered this album not in 2014, but in 2017, a bit of a lonely year for me.
I’d moved to London and didn’t know anyone yet. So, I found company elsewhere, in music.
There was a blues bar I frequented often, feeling less alone in the company of strangers. We were at least sharing the experience of music, even if we weren't sharing in conversation.
And when I was home, I spent an ungodly amount of time pouring over albums. Including this one, which I happened upon.
It wasn't a new album, but it immediately grabbed my attention. Vollebekk was a storyteller. That much was clear. He was in the vein of Bob Dylan, though truthfully he had a better voice.
The album was taken with something akin to wanderlust with songs about road trips across America and anecdotes from life in the city.
Each song painted such vivid, personal pictures, that it inspired my own writing. What were the seemingly insignificant moments in my life which held a grain of humanity or a subtle truth?
“I Love You, Honeybear,” Father John Misty (2015)
I have a love-hate relationship with Father John Misty. He’s cynical and I don’t agree with everything he says. And yet, this album found me at the right time (before I'd left for London), articulating some of the very thoughts I had, but didn’t allow myself to say.
I’ve grown out of this album in many ways, but I believe it is still important to acknowledge its impact. It found me at a time when I was a bit more cynical. And for a period of my life, I needed to know it was okay to express feelings that are ugly.
The reality of life is that, of course, there are rosier parts. But life in its entirety isn’t rosy.
This album shows the full spectrum, from the innocence of love in “Chateau Lobby #4” to the aptly named “Holy Shit,” which feels a lot like Josh Tillman’s list of grievances with life, humanity and the world.
Sometimes you need to voice your uglier thoughts. That’s what this album taught me.
But, while I can acknowledge the ugliness, I've learned now that it's better not to revel in the mess. I try instead to focus on the beauty and hopefulness around me.
“Blonde,” Frank Ocean (2016)
This album does everything for me. Sonically, Ocean takes chances, playing with dissonance, voice manipulation and other devices. Lyrically, the album is deeply personal, while also making political statements (just see opening track “Nike”: “RIP Treyvon. [He] looked just like me”).
Growing up in New Orleans and dealing with Katrina (a natural disaster that disproportionately affected communities of color), he draws from personal experience to paint a picture of the world around him and the life he lived.
This is what I want to do with my art. I want to draw upon my personal experience, tell stories that only I can tell. And I want to be brave enough to tell them in a unique way. I think there are stories buried within each of us that we are meant to tell. As a collective, they paint a bigger picture. Not just of tragedies like Katrina or social injustice, but about humanity and perseverance as well.
As a quick sidebar, I also appreciated Ocean’s appeal to nostalgia in this album. It is a consistent theme in his work, but I felt especially moved by songs like, “Self Control,” where Ocean so effectively sums up feelings toward a past love. There’s an understanding that both must move on, but there’s a hope as well that the other keeps “a place” for them and holds on to their memory. Simple, but great writing.
“Crack-Up,” Fleet Foxes (2017)
This is another London album I poured over. I can remember cooping myself up in my tiny, shoebox of an apartment and going through it song by song. I pulled up every lyric, reading through them like poetry. I went to lyric forums online and even read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, “The Crack-Up,” which Robin Pecknold says inspired the title of the album.
I respect that the band doesn’t spoon feed the listener. Meaning is deeply embedded in songs, forcing the listener to be a more active participant if he or she really wants to understand a song.
“Wife, a son, a son and a daughter,” on its own means nothing. But, taken within the larger narrative of the song—protests on the street, “guns for hire” opening fire—it points to the loss of Alton Sterling, the father of three who was killed by police in Louisiana.
The themes and subject matter of the album mattered to me. They focused on real issues, but addressed them in a poetic and profound manner. I can only hope to do the same with my writing.
By the Way, I Forgive You, Brandi Carlisle (2018)
Over the past two to three years, my perspective on feminism has drastically changed. Comparing the way The Staves’ album and this one affected me, illustrates this transition.
I connected to The Staves because in their music, I saw the rejection of roles I felt were assigned to me—roles I was not sure I wanted for myself. Without realizing it, I became ashamed of my more feminine traits.
I saw my nurturing proclivity as weakness. It had allowed me to get into a destructive relationship, and I saw my emotionality as a weakness as well. I saw the abandonment of my female traits as the only way to get what I wanted in life, to follow my dreams and to be independent and strong.
It wasn’t until I read Ani DiFranco’s memoir that I realized my own bias. And it wasn’t until I carefully contemplated her words, that I started to realize that the traits that made me a woman, were not traits to be ashamed of, but to celebrate.
I found this truth in Carlile’s album as well. Her emotions make her powerful. Her empathy makes her admirable. She loves, accepts, forgives and is vulnerable, but never do any of these things make her weak.
Even her song “Mother” touched me in a way I wasn’t expecting.
For most of my life, I’ve seen motherhood as the opposite of empowering. I assumed I had to pick between my dreams and being a mother. But songs like this (and examples such as Greta Gerwig directing “Little Women” while pregnant) are reminders that I don’t have to choose.
I can be proud of my feminine traits. I can be happy that I think not only with logic, but with my emotions as well. I don’t have to be embarrassed that I turn my head away during violent scenes in a movie.
Society may tell us at times that male traits and perspectives are more valued than female (just take a look at the award season nominations this year, where there is a continued dominance of men in the director category and where most films in the best picture category portray violence in some form or another), but that doesn’t mean we should listen.
I can embrace all my feminine traits. And while I may not be anywhere near ready to have kids, I can allow my nurturing side to be fulfilled in a positive way, as I take care of my small pup, Monet. I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Two Hands, Big Thief (2019)
As I come to my last album, it’s important to acknowledge the common theme across all ten: lyrics. This is my connecting point in all music. Of course, a voice moves me (Adrianne Lenker’s affected, passionate vocals especially), but at the end of the day, it’s the writing that stirs my soul.
And it is also the writing which inspires me in my own journey. Listening to a song which moves me, forces me to ask myself questions: What are the stories worth telling? What are the moments that draw us in and ring a human note?
Big Thief always hits this note of humanity. Even in albums prior, I’m struck by the band’s ability to draw me in to scenes of tranquility, passion, violence, contemplation and pain. This album is no different.
From her vivid depiction of anxiety in “Rock and Sing” to the raking feeling of empathy and guilt in “Forgotten Eyes,” Big Thief’s writing never fails to captivate me.
I also love the emotive nature of their songs. In “Not,” Lenker sounds like she’s on the verge of screaming when a guitar almost screams for her. There’s so much feeling wrapped into their music, it’s impossible to not feel moved.
Honorable mentions: “Bloom,” Beach House (2012), “AM,” Arctic Monkeys (2013), “Currents,” Tame Impala (2015), “Carrie & Lowell,” Sufjan Stevens (2015), “Jaime,” Brittany Howard” (2019), “i,i,”Bon Iver (2019)
What are the small, precious joys of life?
My small dog rests his head on my leg as his weary eyes flutter closed. Stepping out of the car last night, snowflakes coasted down from the sky. When I awoke, they were gone, leaving no trace of their presence. Were they only for me? Who else watched them fall at 3 in the morning?
I think of these things now as a reprieve.
At times, I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the other things happening in the world--the people who are hurting, the earth that is burning, the threat of destruction. Sitting in a coffee shop with the paper laid out before me, I feel helpless. What can I really do?
I dreamed last night that I cut off all of my hair. But did I feel any better? The realm of that which I can control is so small.
What good are the snowflakes? What good am I?
Enjoying and learning from this chapter as the pages turn