Throughout 2020, I wrote, at length, about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This was an extension of an initial five-part series. This is the final entry of this series, as well as an overview for my plans in December and a ranking of those 25 favorite albums, just for fun.
I never had much of a set order for this series, but it feels right to end it on a bright note of optimism.
As for the context behind that statement, First Aid Kit is both a duo of the modern age, and one that both blew up in the 2010s … and remained oddly silent for the bulk of it. Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg got their start through YouTube, after a Fleet Foxes cover of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” went semi-viral and put them on the map. It’s not so much a country music success story as it is a folk and Americana one, but a success story for a talented independent duo nonetheless.
And yet I can’t say they caught further fire out of the gate. 2010’s The Big Black & Blue is a fine effort, but one that scans as an effort made to get something – anything – out there for the sake of having material, and as such can feel a bit flabby and inconsistent in spots. They’d refine their sound to a much better degree with 2012’s The Lion’s Roar, their true breakthrough album, and one that showcased a strong sense for melody and songwriting chops.
That’s the irony surrounding the duo – how they don’t seem to attract a huge buzz, sadly, yet still seem to sell a surprisingly huge amount of units, even outside of their home country. A duo more content with building groundswell behind their expanded sound over striking while the iron is hot, so to say. In that sense, 2014’s Stay Gold, their debut on major label Columbia, is the strongest example of every part of that statement – an effort that refined the duo’s strengths, became a commercial success … and yet led to a four-year break before their next and most recent project in 2018’s Ruins, a project that, at least to me, is just as good, but feels transitional as a whole.
Like with The Lion’s Roar, Stay Gold was a notable step up for the duo in terms of production and instrumentation, playing to huge, atmospheric swells that supported both the melodies and the sisters themselves. The bubbly charisma they both display speaks more to the content, but there’s a young exuberance here that grants the album an upbeat, chipper edge. And while the two trade off each masterfully and have a natural gift for harmony, there’s an impressive amount of solo moments that subtly show off their range well, including the shifts between their upper and lower ranges on “The Bell.” The soaring moments are some of the album’s best, yet the two are also capable of presenting the more dramatic moments with a huge pop sensibility.
And again, it all points back to the richer mix, where the addition of organ, strings, heavier percussion and woodwinds – especially the woodwinds – support the melodies and hooks. I like the air of mystique running through the “My Silver Lining,” the dramatic swell echoing throughout the title track, the bouncy rollick of “Heaven Knows,” and the bright, chipper edge of songs like “Waitress Song” and “Master Pretender,” and would classify them as some of the best moments. Though my one minor gripe has always come in hoping for a greater emphasis in the dynamics themselves, because the few moments that shoot for darker territory mark the strongest points for dramatic swell and songwriting. Take “Cedar Lane,” which starts as one of the more delicate tracks with the softer piano echoed against the strings, but picks up greater intensity as it moves along for something more dark and desperate, and it’s worth noting how much the sisters themselves contribute to that excellent shift. And when they’re the primary forces shining above the minimalism of “A Long Time Ago,” it’s a nice moment of foreshadowing for what made their next album equally as strong.
Now, some of those dramatic hooks come courtesy of an overreliance on reverb, which isn’t uncommon for this brand of folk music, and never feels unwelcome here. Outside of “Shattered & Hollow,” which starts off a bit, well, hollow before bringing in a fuller sound, most of it is used to convey a strong sense of atmosphere that greatly supports the content. And while the writing does mostly support the arc of a breakup album, I’ve always found a fascinating duality between that as well as a theme of trying to make it as a young person in a world not quite ready to accept you yet. It’s an album about maintaining optimism in spite of your age and what you may or may not be able to accomplish yet in life. Again, it mostly speaks to the duo’s quick start and rise, and when presented with where to go next, they grit their teeth on the opener “My Silver Lining” to face what may come. It’s a bit broad as a whole, but performed more than well enough in other areas to make it work excellently. And take “Master Pretender,” which tells of a departed lover, but also cheekily pokes fun at whether they’re making too much of that metaphorical journey and their expectations for what to expect ahead. It’s abstract enough to imply that, be it relationships or self-commentary, youth triumphs over cynicism.
And yet there is a real drama to that arc as well, not to the point of bogging down what is really a quick, brisk listen, but in a way that acknowledges the possible hardships of that decision to push on ahead. That’s the main theme running throughout the title track before acknowledging how it’s better to be “shattered than hollow” on that aforementioned track. And when the metaphorical hardship is presented as a significant other, it’s usually to denote a flighty one on “Master Pretender” or an arrogant one on “Heaven Knows” that’s better off left behind anyway. Though there is a real emotional arc running throughout the feeling of wanting something more and knowing it won’t happen on “Cedar Lane,” and while the breakup on “A Long Time Ago” is presented as an ultimately healthy next step for two young lovers who’ve grown too far apart as people to connect anymore, there’s still a pain in the letting go and actual moving on. But there’s an excitement in that mystery, too, which is why I love the adventurous rush supporting “Waitress Song,” where an unnamed titular character is driven solely by dreams and is hell-bent to act on them. Fantasy-driven as it may be, that’s the ultimate appeal to Stay Gold as a whole, where the style and themes feel familiar, but performed so much better in comparison with other works. Again, I wish it had led to a bigger breakthrough moment for the duo, but as a full artistic expression, this was an excellent next step for them, and their best album of the 2010s.
Now, if you’re curious as to what my top 25 of the decade list would look like, keep in mind that these rankings are ultimately meaningless and that I love them all and wish I could have covered at least twice more than what I covered this year, but if I had to (and if you’ve missed any of these discussions, feel free to refer to my Love List Café page):
- Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds (2015)
- Slackeye Slim – El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa (2011)
- Dave Cobb – Southern Family (2016)
- Holly Williams – The Highway (2013)
- Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song (2010)
- Jason Isbell – Southeastern (2013)
- Charles Wesley Godwin – Seneca (2019)
- Zac Brown Band – Uncaged (2012)
- Caleb Caudle – Crushed Coins (2018)
- Bloody Jug Band – Coffin’ Up Blood (2012)
- Corb Lund – Cabin Fever (2012)
- James McMurtry – Complicated Game (2015)
- Alison Krauss – Paper Airplane (2011)
- Robert Ellis – self-titled (2016)
- Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (2017)
- Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives – Way Out West (2017)
- Lydia Loveless – Indestructible Machine (2011)
- Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway (2017)
- Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood (2015)
- Jason Eady – Daylight & Dark (2014)
- Allison Moorer – Blood (2019)
- Turnpike Troubadours – Goodbye Normal Street (2012)
- Ian Noe – Between The Country (2019)
- Al Scorch – Circle Round The Signs (2016)
- First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (2014)
Also, this is a good time to let folks know that I’ll be taking the majority of December off, both to focus on real life events and year-end lists. I should also mention that I won’t be crafting a “Best” or “Worst” singles of 2020 list. Part of that is because this was an abysmal year for the charts, and that while I usually resort to songs that weren’t chart hits to fill out the list, my criteria has always been a little spotty, and with certain singles (*cough, cough* “Small Town Hypocrite” *cough*) being pulled in favor of more upbeat tunes in light of the pandemic, it’s a good time to reassess that list and structure it a bit better for what’s ahead. I thought about structuring it to work the same way my “Best Hit Songs” feature does (and I swear I’ll do another one of those someday), but most of the songs eligible for that list are ones I discussed last year, so it’s best to just wait for next year. And let’s be honest, I don’t need to contribute any further negativity with a “Worst” hit songs list this year. It’s a bit of a useless statement to make, I know, but I wanted to clear the air anyway. I will still, of course, compile my list of top 50 of singles and deep-cuts as well as an albums list, but outside of one last album review roundup and some occasional single review roundups – plus a collaboration that I’m hoping pans out soon – that will be it for the year from me.
Anyway, if you enjoyed this feature, thanks for reading, and have a safe Thanksgiving holiday, if you celebrate it.