(NOTE: I’ve lost track of how long we’ve been in lockdown but it feels like forever and I’m BORED. And my boredom – combined with my passion for music (and writing/talking about it) – has culminated in this post. It’s a very, very long post so no worries, I won’t be offended if you don’t read all of it, or even read it at all. This was just a bit of a passion project that once I started, I couldn’t put down.)
This is ultimately a blog where I write about living with mental health problems and Autism but music is such a big part of my life that, now my creative brain is coming back to life (a round of applause for Phenelzine), some music content was always going to appear. And I was scrolling through my iTunes (or whatever it’s called now) when it occurred to me that while I write about the important songs of each year, I’ve never talked about albums. And as we’ve entered the new decade, I thought I’d write about some of the most significant albums for me over this last decade, the decade where music really became my life.
It was a really difficult job but I’ve narrowed it down to fifteen (I’m deliberately leaving out singles and EPs because otherwise we’d be here forever). This isn’t necessarily the order in which I discovered them but there’s no way to tell that so I’ve just organised them by release date…
Love Hangover by Alyssa Bernal (2011)
I’d been following Alyssa Bernal on YouTube, after discovering her ‘I’m Yours’ cover. She has such a gorgeous voice and when she covers songs, it doesn’t feel like she’s deliberately trying to make the song her own; they just sound new and fresh and like her own songs simply because she’s singing them. She’d posted a few original songs and those were the ones I always longed for (as much as I loved her covers) and so I was ecstatic when she was signed and announced that she was releasing an album. She toured with Lifehouse (she vlogged the experience – the first one is here) and it was so cool to hear the songs and see her find her confidence on stage. But then the album didn’t come, and didn’t come, and didn’t come (for reasons outside her control). It was so frustrating because she was so good; she deserved to have the songs she’d recorded out in the world. But somehow she got it released independently and while I was sad that some of the songs she’d previously posted on YouTube weren’t on it, I loved it and played it constantly. And now, almost ten years later, it holds such nostalgia for me. My favourites then and now are ‘Stay’ (I love the lyric , “Stay if I get lost along the way and I start fighting windmills, trying to make sense of everything that don’t make sense”), ‘Raincloud Grey,’ and I’m so, so glad that ‘Hey Love’ made it onto the album. I’m pretty sure that that song was the song that got me into songwriting: the lyrics especially just changed something for me, like when you read a book or see a movie and it feels like the whole world has changed. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song.
RED by Taylor Swift (2012)
This was simultaneously a hard call and an easy one. I love all of Taylor’s albums from the 2010s (shout out to Speak Now, RED, 1989, reputation, and Lover) but RED has got to be one of my favourite albums of all time. It was the first Taylor album I was there for from the livestream announcement (I became a fan sometime during 2011) and so it was all new and exciting to me. I remember being up at 2am, jamming to ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ when it was first released. It’s hard to choose favourites; it’s more a case of which songs do I love more than I love others. I love ‘State of Grace,’ because it was the opening number of The Red Tour, the first time I ever saw Taylor live. The moment during State of Grace, when the curtain dropped, was amazing and is a moment I want to remember forever. The song also became very important to me in a different way when a relationship in my family broke up. The lyric ‘we fall in love ’til it hurts or bleeds or fades in time’ was the only thing that explained all the emotion I felt over it. I love ‘Red’ because the lyric writing is so clever despite having such a simple concept. Me and my best friend used to play it on guitar over and over again and it was so much fun. I love ‘Treacherous’ and I always play it when I’m in the car at night. The bridge is so beautiful and the lyrics throughout the song are so emotive. I love ‘I Knew You Were Trouble,’ and I especially loved it after seeing it on TV when she sang it at the Brit Awards, the chaotic-ness of it, especially as it speeds up towards the end. ‘All Too Well’ will forever be one of my absolute favourite songs, as well as being one of my favourite Taylor songs. It’s so beautiful. The story is told so well, the detail is hypnotic, and the emotions are so strong and perfectly presented. I felt every moment of it. And to hear it live on The Red Tour was so special. I could talk about this song forever, how it’s another essential for any car journey, my favourite lyrics, the production, etc, etc. I really could. I’m actually writing an essay about it for my Masters at the moment. I love it so much. And ‘so casually cruel in the name of being honest’ has to be one of my favourite lyrics ever. I could talk about that one lyric forever. I love ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ because it always reminds me of that first night, the first time I heard it on the live stream. And I love singing along to it at full volume in the car. I love ‘The Last Time,’ and how the two voices sound together, how it really sounds like a conversation. I think it’s one of the saddest songs on the album. I love ‘Holy Ground’ and how joyful and almost triumphant it feels and sounds. I was so glad to hear her feel so good about a past relationship, even if it had ended badly. I loved the performance on the tour and whenever I listen to this song, I always feel a surge of hope that, eventually, everything will be okay. I love ‘Begin Again.’ I remember when it first came out: I was in college early and I was sitting in a stairwell with my eyes closed, just letting the lyrics sink in. A lot of the lyrics really resonated with me so I think it’ll always be one of the important ones for me. And I love ‘The Moment I Knew.’ Whenever I need to cry and let my emotions out, this is the song I turn on. It always breaks my heart how sad Taylor sounds. I think it’s so simple and beautiful – the imagery is just so vivid – although I can’t listen to it all that often because it makes me so sad. So… my list of favourites is basically the tracklist. I just love all the changing emotion and detail and imagery in the lyrics, the catchy – both subtle and obvious – melodies, the experimentation in the production, and so on and so on and so on. I love everything about it. And that was such a tumultuous period in my life that there are so many emotions and memories attached to it. And as I said, it was also the first time I saw Taylor live so the RED album and The RED Tour (I went to several tour dates and for one of them, I somehow ended up in the second row and I can confirm that Taylor’s hair is made of magic) are really special to me.
Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves (2013)
It was really hard to choose between this first album and her third album, Golden Hour, but I think that, because this one introduced me to Kacey Musgraves, that just put it over the top (but still, a major shout out to Golden Hour). It was this album that had me falling in love with Kacey’s songwriting and it was one of the albums that got me into country music. I heard her play ‘Merry Go Round’ on Jools Holland, I think, and she was playing Shepherd’s Bush Empire the next night so I bought a ticket and played the album on repeat so that I’d know the songs and could sing along. My immediate favourites were ‘Silver Lining’ (such an amazing opener), ‘Merry Go Round,’ ‘Blowin’ Smoke’ (I especially love the production on this one), ‘Back On The Map’ (and the guitar solo in the live performance is just gorgeous), ‘Keep It To Yourself’ (I think this is my ultimate favourite – the loneliness, in the lyrics and the production, just gets me every time), ‘Stupid,’ ‘Follow Your Arrow’ (I love how enthusiastic the crowd gets every time she plays this song), and ‘It Is What It Is.’ So basically the whole album. I love how gentle her voice is, her attention to detail, the different stories and emotions on the album, and how those emotions seem to effortlessly spill from the lyrics. It’s a beautiful, beautiful album.
Native by OneRepublic (2013)
I can’t remember now how I came across this album and OneRepublic in general but I loved this album from the moment I listened to it. Ryan Tedder is an incredible writer and I love the production: I love the anthemic quality to the whole album. I want to be able to write songs like this one day. My favourites tend to change every time I listen to it but my top five have remained roughly the same: ‘Something I Need,’ ‘I Lived,’ ‘Feel Again,’ ‘What You Wanted,’ and ‘Preacher.’ They all give me such a lift; they give me this feeling of being able to breathe again after being underwater for too long. I think ‘Something I Need’ will always be my favourite OneRepublic song, not only because it’s a great song (Ryan Tedder’s described it as their ‘pub or last call song’ and it really sounds like one) but because it was a favourite song that me and my best friend in sixth form shared. It reminds me of her, of that time in my life, of summer, grassy fields, and driving with the windows down. The two of us actually got to go to the Teenage Cancer Trust show with OneRepublic shown in the video below and it was incredible. I only wish I’d taken more photos and video but at least I have this. Ryan Tedder is an amazing performer and has such a captivating stage presence. And when they did ‘Something I Need,’ he put everything into it. It was one of the best moments, everyone singing and shouting along as Ryan Tedder leapt around the stage, having just as good a time it seemed as we all were. That unity that you get at concerts, during songs like that… that’s just pure magic. In my opinion, at least. Whenever I listen to this song and this album, it reminds me of the lift that show gave me.
Don’t Look Down by Skylar Grey (2013)
I discovered Skylar Grey after she released her single, ‘Invisible,’ (which completely coincidentally was the name of my first single, something I completely didn’t realise until I started writing this) and just fell in love with her, her lyric writing in particular. I loved her solo version of ‘Love The Way You Lie’ as well so I was so excited when she released her album. My favourites even now are ‘Wear Me Out,’ ‘Religion’ (I love the simplicity in the lyric), ‘Clear Blue Sky’ (I loved this one so much that I learnt it on guitar and posted it on YouTube when I did YouTube covers and it was one of the most popular videos I ever posted), and ‘Tower (Don’t Look Down),’ which I think is my ultimate favourite off the album, although it’s really hard to choose. She has a gorgeous voice, the production is always interesting but fitting to the song, her melodies are so slick, and I just love the way she writes lyrics. They weren’t like anything I’d ever heard. She just depicts all of these different emotions so viscerally, with so few words, which takes such skill. And some of them are so achingly vulnerable, like in ‘Tower (Don’t Look Down)’: ‘I always knew that you would follow your big dreams, what I didn’t know is that your dreams never did include me.’ That breaks my heart every time I hear it. I think it’s one of my favourite lyrics on the whole album. It’s lyric writing like that that’s been a big influence on my writing. Someone actually asked me in class a while back if I’d heard of her because the song I’d just played sounded like one of hers and that was such a huge compliment to me. She’s one of those songwriters that just makes me want to get better, be the best writer I can possible be and then some. Like all of the songwriters included in this list really.
Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse by Sara Bareilles (2013)
This was a really difficult choice. I have to give a shout out to her other albums of the decade, Kaleidoscope Heart, The Blessed Unrest, What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress, and Amidst The Chaos because I dearly love them all but there’s something so special about this one, about how it’s just Sara and her piano. I also love that it allows for a selection of songs from all of her albums. So maybe this is a little bit of a cheat but I have just said I love all of her albums of the last decade so I think it’s okay. I love the different production style of each album but as I said, I love how this one shows off Sara’s incredible range of skills: singing, piano, and guitar playing. It also lays bare her songwriting ability, letting the lyrics and melody truly shine. I love the revitalised version of ‘Love On The Rocks’ (it has some incredible lyrics in it), mashed up with ‘Bennie and the Jets.’ I love the unassuming but nevertheless empowering version of ‘Uncharted’ (probably my favourite song of hers, along with ‘She Used To Be Mine’). I love her cover of ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.’ I love the vulnerability of ‘Manhattan.’ I’ve always loved ‘Let The Rain’ but the eagerness of the crowd’s participation and Sara’s interaction with them is so funny and warm that I laugh every time I listen to it. I love ‘I Just Want You’ and how this is the only version of it, because she always wanted it to be a live song, since it’s about her connection with her audience (as I believe she once said). I love the updated version of ‘Come Round Soon,’ which begins with this incredible, laid back coolness that moves effortlessly into sheer power and ferocity. I love the nostalgia of ‘Once Upon Another Time’ and how you could hear a pin drop throughout the whole song, when it’s her voice alone and then when she brings in the harmonium (it’s an incredible performance). She displays her absolutely incredible vocals on ‘Brave’ and ‘Gravity,’ both such special songs. I could go on and on. It’s a beautiful album. Sara is one of my favourite artists as a whole but her lyric writing blows me away every time – the detail, the imagery, the emotion, all in such a short space of time with so few words – and I only hope I can write a song as good as some of hers one day.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me! (2014)
I was introduced to Against Me! by one of my best friends and my brother, who were both really into them. They made me a playlist of their favourites and gave it to me to listen to. I’ve never really listened to punk rock before so it was all very new to me and a bit of an adjustment having only really listened to pop, country, and singersongwriter stuff but by about the third song, I was a huge fan. I loved most of the songs they’d given me, especially those from the then current album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. My favourites were and still are: ‘True Trans Soul Rebel,’ which always reminds me of one of my best friends who is one of the best, most incredible people I love; ‘FUCKMYLIFE666,’ which the three of us would scream along to in the car, the idea of being in tune abandoned in the face of sheer passion for the song; ‘Dead Friend,’ the story of which must’ve been hard to write about and so I always feel honoured to have had it shared with me; ‘Two Coffins,’ which is incredibly sweet despite the morbid sounding title; and ‘Paralytic States,’ a song that I feel deeply connected to, although I’m not ready to talk about why. I just love Laura Jane Grace’s writing: her lyrics are brutal but honest and empowering in their honesty, even when the songs aren’t emotionally empowering, if that makes sense. The stories told in the songs are also ones that I’m not used to hearing, including being transgender (obviously), the death of a friend, suicide, and more. These are all stories that I can relate to in some way and so it’s incredibly validating to have the music you’re listening to acknowledge these very real things, rather than simply stories of falling in love (not that there’s anything wrong with those songs in themselves). And the production on the album is just gorgeous; I particularly love the electric guitar sounds and am always trying to sneak similar ones into my own music, even though the genres are very different. Anyway, it’s an amazing album. And then we were lucky enough to see the band play when they came to London, which was amazing, one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever been to. The crowd was so alive and invested and exhilarated; and screaming – literally screaming (our voices were all an octave lower and raspy the next day) – the lyrics together with fifteen hundred other people who were as passionate about the songs as we were was just incredible. So the album also holds some very special memories for me – I still get very emotional when I listen to it – as well as being lyrically and musically a big favourite of mine.
Brave by The Shires (2015)
I can’t remember what made me download The Shires’ debut single, ‘Nashville Grey Skies,’ but I guess something about it just spoke to me. I do remember listening to in the car on the way to a gig and then serendipitously running into Ben Earle (one half of the duo, in case you haven’t heard of them) at the bar. He was lovely and we talked about music and songwriting and generally got on really well. And then the album was out and I was at their first ever album signing. I love pretty much every song on the album – it felt like a unique little gem of an album in an ocean of music – but my particular favourites were and are ‘Tonight’ (always a high point at their shows), ‘Brave,’ ‘All Over Again,’ ‘State Lines’ (the imagery in this song is just ridiculously good), and ‘Made in England’ (a song I’m so, so glad made the album – I actually think they should’ve named the album after it – because so much country music references traditional American imagery and I just loved and still love having a country song full of English imagery and stories). But I think ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ will always be my favourite song of theirs, of all of their songs. It holds so many beautiful memories that it will always be so special. It’s also something I desperately wish for: a Nashville in the UK. And I’ve followed them ever since. They’ve recently released their fourth album, which is really, really good. I just love the blend of their voices, their melodies, and the imagery in their songs. I love all of their albums (shout out to My Universe, Accidentally on Purpose, and now Good Years, although that was released in this new decade) but there’s something really special about this first one, maybe because it was the first and because it started such a journey.
Badlands by Halsey (2015)
I think the first Halsey song I ever heard was ‘Colors’ and I instantly fell in love, with her lyric writing, her voice, and with the production. It was like she was the artist I’d been looking for, filling a gap in the music I’d been listening to. I listened to the Badlands album over and over again until I knew every word. I love how it’s a concept album and still experiences that she’s lived, ‘the Badlands’ a dystopian place (wherein the stories turned to songs take place) representing her mental state – I definitely related to the themes of mental illness and distress. I love the detail and emotion and imagery in her lyrics; they’re so real and vivid. I also love the attention to detail in every song, right down to specific sounds and backing vocals. Again, I basically love every song on the album but I do have my ultimate favourites. I love ‘Castle’ and how empowering it is. It’s an incredible opener, especially for a debut album, and the production only adds to that power. I love ‘Hold Me Down’ because it was one of the early songs I heard and so it’s intrinsic to Halsey in my mind (the VEVO version she did of it is incredible) and I’m so fascinated by it: it’s so dark, with so many layers and so much imagery. I love the emotion and the lyrics in ‘Roman Holiday,’ especially “’cause I remember when my father put his fist through the wall that separated the dining room.” There’s so much in that lyric that’s never addressed and I love how she does that: layer and layer and layer her stories with moments that aren’t always explained but are somehow absolutely vital to the song as a whole. As I said, ‘Colors’ got me into Halsey and I just love how detailed the story is and how she uses the colour metaphor but without it getting obnoxious or boring. And the bridge will always be gorgeous, always classic Halsey: “You were red and you liked me because I was blue, but you touched me and suddenly I was a lilac sky and you decided purple just wasn’t for you.” What fucking fantastic imagery. It’s a story all on its own. I don’t know if I can explain why I love ‘Gasoline’ so much but something about it just connects to something inside me and that’s really special. ‘Control’ is really important to me; I’d always listen to it before I had to do something scary because it made me feel brave and fierce and invincible. I still use the same strategy sometimes. And I love the lift ‘Young God’ gives you when you listen to it. I also loved what she did with Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk The Line.’ The production is gorgeous and the way it builds is so satisfying.
I got to see Halsey live for the first time on The Badlands Tour in 2016 and she was incredible. It was basically just her onstage, her band (or tour musicians, I’m not sure if they were her official band) and she was absolutely captivating. The musicians were amazing and the backgrounds were stunning, something that has been a running theme throughout her career. It was an awesome show. So that makes this album extra special for me.
I actually got to meet her afterwards. I waited in the cold for hours and hours (it turns out she almost didn’t come out and we weren’t allowed to do autographs, only pictures, because she’d twisted her ankle on stage so everything was done at super speed) but she did eventually insist and hopped out to meet the few remaining people. She was so sweet and just delighted by each person who’d waited, which was a bit of a shock after seeing this fierce, defiant force of nature on stage. I was so excited to meet her but then, as it got closer and closer to my turn, my anxiety took over and in the end, I just couldn’t say what I wanted to say (I desperately wished I’d kept the letter I’d handed in for her). When the anxiety subsided, I was so frustrated with myself and I still am to this day because as she gets more and more famous, she plays bigger and bigger venues and the chances of meeting her again get slimmer and slimmer. I’ve left letters but I have no idea whether she ever got them.
Wildfire by Rachel Platten (2016)
I first heard ‘Fight Song’ when I was in a period of a deep depression and it was the only thing that made me feel better. I listened to it over and over and eventually managed to get up and shower for the first time in several days. It helped and I still go back to it on bad days when I need to get up and face the world. The album came out and while ‘Fight Song’ remained and remains my favourite, I fell in love with ‘Stand By You’ (it’s so uplifting and joyful) ‘Better Place’ (I love the lyric, “and the colours are golden and bright again”), ‘You Don’t Know My Heart’ (the rhythms in the chorus melody are so cool), and ‘Astronauts’ (I particularly love the first verse and the energy in the chorus is just so fun). She’s got an incredible voice and the melodies in particular are just stunning. And then, not long after it came out, her record label ran a competition for a handful of people to meet her before her first London show and somehow, I won a spot. I actually started crying in the car when I found out because day by day, ‘Fight Song’ and all of the songs on this album were pulling me out of my depression and suddenly I had the opportunity to thank Rachel for that.
Meeting her is a treasured memory and she was so, so lovely. She listened intently and hugged me over and over again, saying how glad she was that the song had been able to do that for me. And while she was meeting the rest of the group, I talked to a couple of people that I’m still friends with today and see at concerts.
I was right at the front for the show and it was so much fun. She’s such a great performer and she was just smiling so big the whole time; you could tell she was just having the best time. I haven’t had the opportunity to see her live since then but that almost makes the show all the more special: it was so small and already special because it was her first UK show. Hopefully I’ll get to see her again at some point.
Hero by Maren Morris (2016)
I’ll admit that it took me a while to get into Maren Morris but then I saw her live at Country2Country in 2017 and it just clicked – her voice just soared through the arena and I just got the songs in a way that I hadn’t up until then – and from then on I was obsessed with this album. Me and my best friend and writing partner, Richard, (who’s also a huge Maren Morris fan) would listen to it before every writing session, during our breaks (while we played Mariokart), in the car… All the time. We were (and still are to an extent) complete songwriting nerds about it, discussing in depth the lyrics, the melodies, and the production, and how unique they all are. Major shout out to GIRL because I love that album too but this one holds a special place in my heart, maybe because it’s the album that introduced me to Maren Morris, to her gorgeous voice and her incredible songwriting. I also saw her live on the accompanying tour with Richard (second row at Shepherd’s Bush Empire – it was an epic show) and also met her for the first time at the tour meet and greet (I was anxious and shy and felt like I only made an awkward impression, rather than the positive, personal, and maybe even memorable one I’d hoped to make). So, yeah, the album holds a lot of special memories for me. I love pretty much all of the songs but I do have my absolute favourites. The melodies in ‘Sugar’ are so gorgeous and catchy, and the imagery is really unique: “Just a little bit is all it takes, like a Coca-Cola on Christmas Day.” The sass in ‘Rich’ is just so great and it’s always so much fun at her shows. I don’t even know how to describe ‘My Church.’ It feels spiritual, like a hymn, but in a real way and it reminds me of Nashville and the atmosphere there and feeling so alive. ’80s Mercedes’ is a masterclass in imagery and the production is just so rich and gorgeous. I love the honesty and vulnerability in ‘I Wish I Was.’ So many people talk about how women always paint themselves as victims in their songs (which is total bullshit) but there’s something so real and admirable about the way she honestly takes responsibility for her part in the breakdown of the relationship and how as much as she wishes she was right for the other person, she’s just not. I especially love the line, “so go on, hate me if you have to, I still care about you.” I loved ‘Second Wind’ when Kelly Clarkson released it but there’s something particularly special about it in Maren’s voice. It’s so empowering and uplifting; it’s one of my favourite songs for when I need a pick me up. But I think that ‘Once’ is my ultimate favourite. Apart from the incredible vocals, I love the emotion in the song: the resignation, the pain, the nostalgia, the unresolved love. The lyric, “don’t forget that you loved me once,” just breaks my heart every time. It’s a stunning collection of songs.
Isn’t It Strange? by Lauren Aquilina (2016)
Lauren Aquilina is another artist I initially discovered on YouTube and she was just so like me (I mean, we even have the same name) that I immediately related to her. I loved all three of her EPs: Fools (my favourite song was ‘Wonder’), Sinners (my favourite song was ‘Irrelevant’), and Liars (my favourite song and maybe favourite song of hers overall is ‘Square One’). I loved all three of those EPs so I wasn’t surprised when I loved her album, ‘Isn’t It Strange?’ I loved the lyrics, the melodies, the arrangements, the production, the sounds she used… The whole thing is just beautiful. When I first listened to it, I remember thinking that it sounds like it could’ve been written all in one night about the same person because it flows together so perfectly, sonically and thematically. And I loved that she included ‘Fools,’ a nod to her beginnings. My favourite songs were and still are ‘How Would You Like It?’ (I love how quiet, how simply this one is arranged – it allows the emotion the lyrics and emotions to have so much more impact), ‘Hurt Any Less’ (I love everything about this one: the production, the melodies, the fact that the choruses are in half time – I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone do that – the structure of the bridge section, the imagery, the lyrics in the second verse, the lyrics in general – I think my favourite lyric has to be, “this was never love, it was chaos,”), ‘Thinking About’ (I love how there’s one piano note that continues throughout the whole song, like the memory of the person you’re trying not to think about, and I think the lyric, “but all I’m thinking about is not thinking about you,” is so clever in its simplicity, and even more clever when the next verse starts with “I’m thinking about you and…”), and ‘Ocean’ (it feels, to me at least, that the production perfectly reflects the emotion and the vibe of the song and the lightness of it, combined with the freedom in the final lyric of ‘well, I know that one day it’s an ocean I’ll be,” makes it the perfect album closer). If my first album is this good, I’ll be one happy girl.
Puxico by Natalie Hemby (2017)
I remember actually squealing when I heard the news that Natalie was releasing her own album. I’d seen her perform at Tin Pan South a couple of times (I think) by then and she’s such an amazing songwriter and singer. She taps into detail so beautifully and brings out the emotion in a way that seems effortless. The songs link so well and it almost feels like you’re walking through the little town in Missouri the album is named after. The imagery is so vivid but with a kind of hazy nostalgia. And her voice has this gorgeous, almost raspy tone that only adds to that nostalgia. As good as I think the whole album is, it’s the second half that really stands out for me. I love the steady conviction in ‘Worn,’ that all the important things in life are just that. And I love the last couple of lines, “the finish of a wedding band, you and I, together we stand, worn.” I love the almost fragile detail in ‘This Town Still Talks About You.’ ‘I’ll Remember How You Loved Me’ has the most tender, gentle chorus. ‘Return,’ in my opinion, feels like the high point that the album has been building to, with some particularly gorgeous guitar parts in the middle and vocals that are just so emotional. It’s the perfect closer. I’d love to know how she wrote the album, whether she had all the concepts and then worked on the songs until they were perfect or whether she wrote a handful of the songs and then worked the rest around those or something completely different. I’m fascinated by the songwriting processes of all of these writers – I read as much as I can find in interviews and so on – and would love to know more about how they practice and improve their craft.
Unapologetically by Kelsea Ballerini (2017)
It feels very strange to be talking about Kelsea’s last album when she’s just released a new album but that is the oddity of life. Anyway. I first got into Kelsea Ballerini at the Tin Pan South festival on my first trip to Nashville in 2016. I’d heard some of her music but not had time to sit down and really listen to her album. Hearing her perform live and hearing her talk about songwriting, I just fell in love, with her lyrics and her melodies and her voice (I actually got to meet her afterwards but I was so jet lagged that I look somewhat zombie-like in the photo). I liked the first album (I did love ‘XO, ‘Square Pegs,’ and ‘Stilettos’) but it wasn’t until I heard ‘Legends’ that I felt like a true Kelsea fan. It just sounded like she was really solid in her musical and lyrical comfort zone and therefore producing great songs, but also like she was more comfortable exploring new things too. I can honestly say that I love every track on the album, although I didn’t love them all straight away. But within a few months, yeah, I loved every single song. But if I had to choose my favourites, I think they would be ‘Graveyard’ (the melodies are to die for), ‘Miss Me More’ (I love how empowering it is), ‘Get Over Yourself’ (I love the imagery and, again, the melodies are awesome and so freaking catchy), ‘Roses’ (the chorus lyrics are SO good), ‘Machine Heart’ (I love the way the chorus lifts and the power that movement has), ‘Unapologetically’ (I love how unapologetically – pun actually not intended – romantic it is and the production is stunning), and ‘Legends’ (I think this is my ultimate favourite on the album because it’s so lyrically rich and emotional; I think it’s the perfect closer for an album called Unapologetically). The songwriting is incredible (she’s a big inspiration when it comes to lyric writing – although I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to get as many words into a song as she can) and the production is just so rich and gorgeous. I saw her perform a few of times during the ‘era’ of that album and she was fantastic each time. (The new album is fucking great too.)
Open Book by Kalie Shorr (2019)
I was so excited for Kalie to release a full length album (I adored the preceding EP, Awake) and it tied with Taylor Swift’s Lover for my favourite album of 2019 (which I’d also been super excited about). It’s such a special album, filled with razor sharp wit, painful honesty, captivating imagery, and gorgeous guitar parts. The sound is just so Kalie, which makes complete sense if you read her social media bios (which only recently changed to ‘I’m an open book’): Country singer still recovering from her emo phase. She’s easily one of my favourite songwriters – I particularly love her lyric writing, her honesty, her refusal to shy away from subjects and emotions that most people might avoid and her ability to express them so accurately and beautifully – and I’m obsessed with every track on the album. ‘Too Much To Say’ is the perfect album opener, the chorus ending with, ‘I’ve got too much to say and I’ll tell it all to you.’ You’ve been warned. ‘Escape’ is breathtakingly vulnerable, exposing problems her family have faced along with her own, with a lonely electric guitar for a backdrop. ‘Messy’ is one of my absolute favourites: revealing the isolation of a disintegrating relationship through simple but visceral imagery. The internal rhyming in this one is just amazing too. ‘The One’ may be my absolute favourite, with stunning lyrics, visually and emotionally complex, with production that is somehow equally emotional to match. It follows the ups and downs of an imperfect relationship that ultimately ends in crushing disappointment and I cried the first time I heard it, and multiple times afterwards. ‘F U Forever’ is a delightfully upbeat and sassy song, throwing shade at every possible opportunity, but dig a little deeper and you can see the traumatic relationship underneath. Ultimately though, it’s a triumph – a ‘fuck you’ in no uncertain terms, leaving no twisted detail unexposed. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a letter to the next girl, a warning, dressed up in literary metaphor (a technique that reoccurs throughout the album). It has so many layers and hidden details that I’m still sorting through them months later; it feels like a concept album in one song. And just as we’re starting to find some peace, we’re hit with ‘The World Keeps Spinning,’ a tribute to her sister who died suddenly and tragically at the beginning of 2019. I can’t help but sob helplessly every time I listen to this one because I relate to it so strongly: the moment everything changes forever, the painful, unexpected details of loss, the cruelty of everyday life continuing as normal, all described so simply – not one word is superfluous – but so perfectly. In my experience at least. It’s Taylor Swift level storytelling. ‘Big Houses’ gives us an intimate glimpse into a relationship with her mother and her childhood, capturing and balancing the memories, both positive and negative, the good of her relationship with her mother and the implied difficulties they faced together. It’s nostalgic but not in a way that whitewashes the past; it’s real and uncompromising but it still sounds gentle, perhaps an ode to childhood when the hard edges were a little softer. ‘Gatsby’ (another literary reference) is a witty, self-deprecating song that describes the mask she wore to cope with the difficult emotions she was dealing with but also takes a hard look at the part she was playing in her potential downward spiral. It’s catchy as hell and the production is extremely congruent (one of my uni lecturers favourite terms) but as with ‘F U Forever,’ look beneath the surface and there’s a whole lot more going on. That’s something I love about Kalie’s songs: there’s a whole lot more in them than you hear in the first listen. ‘Thank God You’re A Man’ is perhaps the song I connected to least on the album but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it and its place on the album. I’ve always been particularly impressed with how the production feels all consuming, matching the concept of the song, of being consumed by another person. I love ‘Vices’ and how effortlessly it describes how easy it is to get sucked into bad habits, especially when you’re dealing with a lot. Lyrically, I think this song is incredible and its honesty and vulnerability gets somewhat overlooked in the face of songs like ‘The World Keeps Spinning’ and ‘Escape.’ ‘Lullaby’ is another of my favourites from this album: the lyrics are beautiful, the imagery is stunning, but it’s the emotions conveyed that really stand out for me, the combination of strength, surety, delicacy, and vulnerability. Ultimately I think the first line of the chorus sums up the whole song – lyrics, melody, and production – perfectly: “This is the sound of letting it go.” The album could’ve easily ended there but there’s one last song that feels both like a triumphant ending and the first steps of a new chapter. ‘Angry Butterfly’ might be the most emotionally compelling song on the album. It’s the culmination of the origin story that is Open Book, a brutally honest assessment of what she’s gone through and where she’s headed now, casting off the past but acknowledging how it’s changed her. This is her story, this is who she is now, and she’s not ashamed of any of it. This review kind of got away from me but oh well, it’s written now and I’m proud of it. As I’ve already said, Kalie is one of my favourite writers and I’m so inspired by her, by her lyric writing and guitar playing in particular (it’s a pipe dream of mine to write with her one day). This album is incredibly special to me and I think always will be, coming into my life just when I needed it. Having said that, I can’t wait to see where Kalie goes next.
If you want to see me ramble about my favourite lyrics of each track, you can find the Twitter thread here.
So I hope you enjoyed this somewhat all over the place review of my favourite albums of the 2010s and that you maybe found a few new albums to listen to. My current soundtrack still includes tracks from these albums but I also have a handful of brand new albums to listen to, including Manic by Halsey, Good Years by The Shires, kelsea by Kelsea Ballerini, and Lady Like by Ingrid Andress, all of which I highly, highly recommend.