The top 100 albums of the decade
Ruminations on death, loneliness, identity and hyperreality. The album didn’t die in the 2010s, it just got really, really weird
Beer on the Rug
420! Japanese characters! Theoretical musings about capitalism vis-a-vis malls of the future! How fitting that a release based around the conceit of smudged memories – Diana Ross on the radio, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter on the N64, rudimentary CGI on the edutainment programme – now invokes something else entirely: a time when these tropes were the primary concern of the online underground. Downloading .zips of vaporwave in 2011 feels so quaint by comparison, whipping a chill wind across FLORAL SHOPPE’s smooth surfaces. Lo, the uncanny Möbius strip of half-remembered feelings continues to loop infinitely; at the end of civilisation, there’s nobody here but us.
Late Nights (The Album)
Jeremih’s career-long refusal to be a superstar – a quest marked by refusing press, ongoing label tensions and, most notably, sending a body double on stage at his own concert – makes Late Nights (The Album) even more special. The elusive R&B innovator followed up his cult mixtape with a polished full-length that did his acrobatic, rhythmic vocal style justice. The late-night buzz of Pass Dat, the heady romantic altitude of Planez, the blissful morning-after haze of Paradise – it’s the full garden of pleasure seeking.
City Slang/Merge Records
With Swim, Dan Snaith declared he wanted to make “dance music that sounds like it’s made of water”. He made good on his promise, creating an immersive, decade-defining dance record. From the moment the beat in Odessa kicks in it’s a vivid, restless album that takes themes of divorce and loneliness and makes you dance to them. Percussion swarms around wave after wave of bright, echoing synths. Actually come to think of it, Swim sounds less like water and more like the warmth of the sun, sun, sun, sun, sun… (sorry).
Tropic of Cancer
Blackest Ever Black
The standout release from Blackest Ever Black in 2014, in the midst of a particularly fertile patch for the label, Restless Idylls by Camella Lobo’s newly reimagined solo project Tropic of Cancer captured desperation and sadness in a rich sound palette of gothic minimalism. Electronic by nature, but characterised by a pulse more akin to post-punk, the eerie nature of the vocal layering and the sheer space given to each individual sound brings the drama of this dark gem to life.
Every song you’ve ever heard on the ‘lofi hip-hop radio – beats to relax/study to’ stream has been trying to rip off this mixtape. Clams, a physical therapy student, had been slowly gaining a rep as the go-to producer for modern hip-hop’s foundational MCs – like Lil B and Soulja Boy – but had no idea his first tape of instrumentals would have such crossover appeal. It landed on the radar of electronic music followers – a fanbase he was barely aware of. Released at a time when you could unironically refer to a genre of music as ‘illbient’, Instrumentals is a woozy snapshot of rap history.
You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen’s croaky, tortured vocals throughout You Want It Darker sound like they’re coming from a war veteran who has seen too much. Of the greats, Cohen had truly seen more than most. On the title track, the folk legend strains to stretch out painful lyrics such as: “A million candles burning for the help that never came.” From there the record balances ruminations on mortality and faith with sharp, dry humour, all of which were rendered in even sharper relief when Cohen died less than a month after the album’s release. The bleakness of this record is heavy and can feel like you’re sinking in quicksand, but as ever with Cohen, the songwriting is strong enough to pull you back out just before it swallows you up.
Wakin on a Pretty Daze
It’s commonly suggested that guitar music has had a rough time over the last 10 years, but to discount it entirely is to forget the mammoth contribution of one Kurt Vile. Nowhere does Vile sound more expansive than on Wakin on a Pretty Daze, his 2013 collection of capital-R rock songs, which explores and revels in many of the genre’s niches, and features easily some of the best straight-up shredding of the decade.
So It Goes
For a brief moment before Atlanta took over the world, New York was the crucible for exciting new hip-hop talent in the 2010s. Ratking were the clear leaders of the pack, twisting the city’s storied history into fascinating new shapes that the likes of Joey Bada$$ could only dream of. Alternating between cocky, punk-inspired verses from Wiki and poetic musings from former member Hak, So It Goes took the legacy of Mobb Deep’s storytelling and updated it for kids who skate. They enlisted King Krule and Princess Nokia (as Wavy Spice) and attracted the attention of Skepta in the process.
Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Wu Lyf were, arguably, the last great indie band. Specialising in mystery and misdirection, the group shrank away from attention while simultaneously demanding it with their cultish visuals and online presence. Their only album, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain was recorded in a derelict church in Manchester and a sense of the sublime runs throughout the record thanks to the soaring organ chords and reverb-soaked drums that ring out behind lead singer Ellery Robert’s snarled vocals. Many bands have tried to replicate the sheer electricity of this album. All of them have failed.
Boy Better Know
It’s popular among artists today to boast their independent credentials, but JME is one of the few who can do it without having to massage the truth. Released on his own Boy Better Know imprint in the kernel of grime’s mid-decade reemergence, Integrity represented a statement of intent: that the scene wouldn’t be bought out by major label suits again, and that the music would always speak for itself. JME waited until the final minute of the final track to hammer his point home: “Been doing this for over 10 years/ So, any one of you cocaine-snorting label executives who thinks they can take my integrity for a couple bags/ Think twice.” If you hadn’t already got the message, then he wanted to make sure you left with it.
“If you want to know about my life, listen to this record,” Annie Clarke famously said of her fifth album. Whether Masseduction actually was any less oblique remains debatable, but with it Clarke conjured a study of sex and power as vivid as its vermillion and fuschia sleeve art. “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” she exclaimed on the taut title track, panting over synthetic beats and her own FX-laden shredding, while the hyperactive synths on Sugarboy brought to mind Nine Inch Nails on uppers.
The OF Tape Vol. 2
Odd Future Records
Odd Future weren’t a group defined by albums. In a lot of ways, they weren’t a group defined by music, but every member that made the movement so electrifying stepped up on this tape. Frank Ocean’s White set the tone for the magic of Channel Orange which would drop four months after, Syd and The Internet found their neon-lit R&B groove on tracks like Ya Know and Analog 2, and a freshly-freed Earl proved that his prodigious knack for mind-bending assonance hadn’t been lost in Samoa on iconic posse cut Oldie. A snapshot of the decade’s most influential act at the height of their individual and collective powers.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Bad Seed Ltd.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 16th studio album arrived in 2016, and with it carried a weight seldom afforded to new music. The death of Cave’s son, Arthur, the year before marked it out as a meditation on grief. As such, Skeleton Tree feels less like an album and more like a series of incantations. “With my voice I am calling you,” Cave sings on opener Jesus Alone, a track actually written before Arthur’s tragic accident. From there it seems to unspool with sadness, from the slow disintegration of Girl In Amber to the playful intimacy of Distant Sky. Coloured with a sense of mourning, it is Cave’s most painful, and most human, work. But it’s also, perhaps, his most timeless.
Chance the Rapper
Before Chance the Rapper was making listless gospel rap and finding increasingly cornier ways to praise his wife, there was Acid Rap. With Chance’s colourful drawl and endearingly spaced out beats, Acid Rap almost instantly sounded like a classic drug album. Yet this is far from just a blissful trip – songs like Acid Rain and Paranoia make it abundantly clear that a hit of LSD won’t be enough to make Chance forget about living in a city where finding a gun is easier than finding a parking spot. Acid Rap works so well because Chance can’t escape his everyday demons even after entering a glowing world of psychedelic euphoria. It’s the reason why this music sounds so human.
In a decade defined by decreased attention spans and discussions on the future of the album format, Tierra Whack became one of the only artists who rose to the challenge of releasing an LP in the 2010s and completely switching up the package. Short enough to listen to cover-to-cover on the morning bus commute but still impressively rich – thanks both to her skill as a rapper and the album’s accompanying short film – Whack World is the most effective flip on the concept of ‘15 minutes of fame’ since Warhol came up with the idea in the 60s.
You Won't Get What You Want
In 2010, Rhode Island noisemakers Daughters officially broke up, citing internal conflict. The quartet’s musical style had always been ambiguous – they’ve been labelled as grindcore, art metal and even “Elvis Presley being tortured” – but on comeback album You Won’t Get What You Want experimentalism took centre stage. Distortion-heavy opener City Song is a breathless remark on the bleakness of modern life. Less Sex is the best post-punk song Nick Cave never wrote. Guest House closes the album on a dark, ambient note, reminiscent of Yves Tumor’s recent output. You Won’t Get What You Want was a bold step into the unknown for a band that had been gone for nearly a decade.
Rachel Grace Almeida
For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
Having emerged around 2012 as a darling of the left-field house and techno contingent, New Yorker Brian Leeds progressively moved himself further away from beat-oriented pursuits in favour of more ambient pastures. It’s a shame he hasn’t released any more music since this grandiose long player on Proibito in 2016, but that’s equally given us time to sink further into the anchorless melodic phrases and delicately sculpted textures that shape out this brilliantly realised, consistently rendered trip.
Hoodies All Summer
Home is central to Kano’s narrative as an artist. Throughout the years, each album has paid some sort of homage to his home, Newham. While Made In The Manor was a homecoming of sorts for Kano, Hoodies All Summer – arguably his magnum opus – beautifully reflects on how Newham has changed over the years. Youth violence, community, the Windrush scandal and grime’s history are all reflected through his words, making it one of the boldest and most important works to come out of contemporary Britain.
No Cities to Love
In 2015, the iconic Olympia group Sleater-Kinney announced that after a decade-long hiatus, they’d be returning with a brand new record. That album was No Cities to Love, which, despite the 10 year delay, was as vibrantly urgent as all their best material. Full of the band’s signature, rhythmic walls of sound, No Cities to Love sees Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein trade barely containable vocals and guitars over Janet Weiss’ punishing drumbeats, attacking consumerism, sexism and personal anxieties with an inspired bolt of potency.
If road rap is the overlooked cousin to grime’s attention seeking eccentricities, then Nines is its ultimate understated ambassador. After a run of mixtapes that secured street classic status, and a debut album that went top five with no promo campaign, he was faced with something he perhaps hadn’t encountered in music before: expectations. Not that you’d notice from his insouciant flows or effortlessly sharp one-liners. From gun-worship posse cuts (Line of Fire Pt. 5) to the closest thing UK rap has to a feelgood anthem (I See You Shining), this is Nines refined.
Burn Your Fire for No Witness
Burn Your Fire for No Witness sparkles with wild, high drama. “I am the only one now,” Angel Olsen declares on opener unfucktheworld, her voice heavy with defiance. The 10 songs that follow rake the smouldering ashes of a relationship to ask unanswerable questions about solitude and selfhood, flickering between lush, glorious melodrama, and Olsen’s sharp, poised wit. But when her fury overflows, the record closes in on itself with a fearful hush: “I wish I had the voice of everything,” she threatens on Stars. Burn Your Fire… finds Olsen in the eye of her own storm, burning with graceful, terrible intensity.
The English Riviera
On one of the best British pop albums of the decade, Metronomy offered a sleek and classy departure from their electronic roots to create something truly special. The imagery and title reimagined a popular piece of Torbay/Torquay coastline as a sun-soaked luxury hot spot, more akin to the sophisticated continental coast than fish and chips and the English channel; a semi-ironic device mirrored by the album’s polished musical veneer. The insatiable hooks of The Look and The Bay remain stamps of timeless postcard pop from a band at their peak.
Bellaca Del Año
Tomasa Del Real
Some albums are made for the club. In this case, it’s made for a cyber-feminist, sex-positive club, where guests are whipping their hair back and forth, dressed head-to-toe in latex and dripping in diamantes. This is the reggaeton utopia Chilean star Tomasa Del Real envisioned on 2018’s Bellaca Del Año. A pioneer of the neo-perreo movement – an internet-inspired offshoot of reggaeton – Real’s hyper-digital aesthetic, electronic samples and snarling dembow stomps sound like the future.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Having anointed Lorde as “the future of music” on the strength of her debut, one can only imagine the superlatives David Bowie would have lavished on the Auckland singer had he heard Melodrama. A profound step forward from Pure Heroine, this Jack Antonoff-produced follow-up further established Lorde’s status as pop’s premiere lyricist in naturalistic lines like, “I overthink your punctuation use.” Documenting wild nights out, lust, heartbreak, revenge and self-acceptance, Melodrama accurately captured adolescence in all its thrilling intensity.
An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
History Always Favours the Winners
Leyland James Kirby’s The Caretaker project reached a new level of conceptual perfection with this 2011 masterpiece. A direct reference to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the haunting sound of early 20th century ballroom music, The Caretaker is an explicitly hauntological project using subtly looped and processed samples of a bygone era to capture the effect of Alzheimer’s disease. Draped in an artful veil of crackle and reverb, James Kirby drew us into a suffocating yet oddly comforting world of cracked nostalgia and cerebral decay.
Bad Boy Records/Wondaland Arts Society
In a decade that would see Janelle Monáe showered in Grammy nominations and starring in two Oscar-approved movies, everything we needed to know about her talent, drive and imagination was foreshadowed with this endlessly surprising debut. An Afrofuturistic concept album about a messianic robot, The ArchAndroid saw the Kansas-born virtuoso hopping between skittish funk (Tightrope), vintage rock’n’roll (Come Alive (War of the Roses) and cosmic R&B (Wondaland), with the odd orchestral overture thrown in to sate her cinematic aspirations. Though in all honesty, flawless vocals and boundless ambition aside, on The ArchAndroid anything went.
Where We Come From
It says a lot about your impact as a dancehall deejay when the question about your inclusion in an end of decade list isn’t whether, but which. Popcaan’s studio debut on Mixpak seamlessly wove together his breezy melodies with beats that stayed within the confines of dancehall but also managed to reach audiences beyond the scene. When Popcaan’s in his bag, having fun, you feel it emanate through the speakers and five years on from its release Where We Come From still serves as a reminder of why he’s the king.
Carrie & Lowell
“This is not my art project, this is my life,” Sufjan said about Carrie & Lowell, a record made in the aftermath of the death of his estranged mother and one which attempted to make sense of the unfathomable questions that grief can bring. Rather than a concept about a US state or the experimentalism of Age of Adz, this was a stark, spare but also beautiful record about loss. His soul is bared in hushed tones as regret-tinged memories are shared. But it’s on No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross, when his voice cracks and he sings “fuck me, I’m falling apart”, that he captures the gut punch of losing a loved one most viscerally. For those who have lost someone, Carrie & Lowell is a companion to always hold close.
Building on the promise of his earlier Scythians EP, James Whipple’s debut album as M.E.S.H. captured the information rush of the digital age in compelling form. Like the other members of Berlin’s Janus collective, Whipple’s skill lies in wielding a broad palette of sonic matter through his astounding approach to sound design. Moving with an attention-deficient energy, Piteous Gate was an album that reflected the reality of 21st century connectivity back at the listener in startling high definition.
Something magical happened when Charli bid the charts farewell to work with a rag-tag group of guest stars and left-field producers. Bratty, boasting and with a single-minded bravado, Charli found her footing on Number 1 Angel, but she made her name with Pop 2. It felt like a coming of age of PC Music’s hyper-glossy power pop, sure, but also of a new cohort of stars ranging from Caroline Polachek and CupcakKe to Dorian Electra and Kim Petras. At the heart of it all? It’s Charli, baby.
As early as 2015, keen eyes would have already spotted Brian Piñeyro beginning to make his mark, experimenting with gauzy house, techno and breakbeats under a myriad of aliases (DJ Xanax, Luis, DJ Wey) – but with his DJ Python moniker he struck pure gold. Dulce Compañia drew on sounds that were comfortingly familiar (languid house pads, trancey arps and dembow rhythms) and cast them out somewhere far flung: a deep blue sonic world full of intrigue and aching emotion.
A Moon Shaped Pool
Nine albums in, Radiohead proved they’d lost none of their power to surprise with a cinematic set synthesising influences including Solid Air-era John Martyn and Erased Tapes’ back catalogue. And yet for all their invention, these songs were as outright beautiful as anything the Oxford five-piece have ever produced, be it the haunting piano motif and reversed vocal loops on Daydreaming or the transcendent key change at the climax of Present Tense. Add exquisite string arrangements, and lyrics delving into divorce, the rise of the far right, and climate change, and A Moon Shaped Pool was Radiohead’s strongest collection since In Rainbows.
Under the Skin OST
An alien comes to Earth to prey on human beings. Hardly the most original plot, but Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Under the Skin was rooted in a curdled depiction of character and landscape, not storyline. Those elements became irrevocably embroiled in Levi’s score, which lured viewers into the uncanny valley of Glazer’s bleak rendering of dusk in Scotland. With nervous strings and sorrowful pauses reminiscent of Arca, the film’s impersonal violin motif still immediately calls to mind Glazer’s filmic void. A masterclass in world-building, and an essential addition to the Micachu’s body of work in its own right.
Field of Reeds
These New Puritans
If Hidden announced the scale of These New Puritans’ ambitions, then it was on Field of Reeds that they announced their depth. In the third wild shift of their musical trajectory, the Barnett brothers were transformed into English impressionists.
In no way a small operation, the record was produced with the assistance of two ensembles, a roster of soloists, an organist, a magnetic resonator piano operator, a children’s choir, a hawk called Shiloh and his handler (called Alan). Yet for all the complex architecture behind it, the results were nothing but natural. A mysterious, elegant record that moves like light in muddy water.
One of the most distinctive and original voices in British music, Richard Dawson’s study of the medieval tradition and texts informed the majestic and brave Peasant. The album, set somewhere between 500-700AD, tells tales of struggle, battle and the day-to-day life of its subject. As a concept album, it expertly traverses the weighty and potentially stagnant subject matter with a series of pieces that musically wrong-foot you at every turn, leaving Dawson’s jaw-dropping vocal abilities firmly in the centre.
From drug abuse to depression, Mike Hadreas has always been fearless in giving voice to his demons. However, it was on his third album that the Seattle-based songwriter learned to amplify that darkness, with a sonic palette as abrasive as his subject matter. Created with the assistance of Portishead’s Adrian Utley and PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, Too Bright augmented fragile piano compositions with icy synth textures, scorched guitar feedback, disembodied screams and haunting reverb, leaving Hadreas to defiantly dismantle queer stereotypes and confront demons as personal as body dysmorphia and addiction.
(Sandy) Alex G
(Sandy) Alex G is a fascinating creator whose prolific nature has meant that we’ve heard his development in real time. DSU, his label debut on Orchid Tapes, is sparse and beautiful, though its experiments with distortion also clearly form the building blocks of the more layered, multi-generic sound he’s embraced lately. In capturing the pre-parenthesis (Sandy) Alex G at the height of his powers as an emo princeling in the purest sense, however, DSU remains, for many, the high point of his output.
When Puerto Rican artist Bad Bunny dropped his long-awaited debut X 100PRE at midnight on Christmas Eve, I was stopped in my tracks. To many critics, releasing an album on a holiday seemed counterproductive in our New Music Friday climate. But to us Latinxs who celebrate Noche Buena – our version of Christmas – it felt like an act of solidarity. Like himself, he knew we’d be mid-festivities with our families, perreando to the pounding beat of La Romana, or slow-dancing to the sensitive dembow of Si Estuviésemos Juntos. It’s fitting, then, that the album translates to “forever”, because with this album, he just might have changed reggaeton’s course for good.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Space Is Only Noise
American-Chilean producer Nicolas Jaar has played a role in many of electronic music’s more sublime moments this decade. From his work with Dave Harrington as part of Darkside, to his unofficial alternative soundtrack to the Russian film The Color of Pomegranates, he has always been unafraid of taking club-oriented sounds into cerebral territory.
Yet it is Space Is Only Noise that remains his finest hour. With grace and restraint, he meanders through an LP of quiet, weird grooves and textured ambience, blending sampled dialogue, fuzzy instrumentation and his own ethereal voice. It’s a dense, textured landscape that gives way to occasional, euphoric flight.
More Than Any Other Day
More Than Any Other Day, on early listens, ran the risk of sounding pretentious. Ought, an art-punk band from Montreal releasing via the sometimes-challenging Constellations Records, defied preconceptions. The Byrne-esque stream-of-consciousness vocals of Tim Darcy sprint along with scratchy post-punk jangle, delivering a sermon of hope and resilience in the face of anxiety and lassitude. “Everything is going to be OK/ Together/ Today.” Darcy yells on the album’s triumphant opener, willing himself to believe it. It’s a universal feeling, one that continued to grow throughout the rest of the 2010s.
Chance of Rain
On Chance of Rain, US producer Laurel Halo knitted together her clear artistic impulses: wilful, explorative abstraction and high velocity, albeit jarringly lopsided, techno – something that was becoming her calling card in sets around 2012. The result is a slippery, densely layered record with no centre of gravity and the angles all off. Textures slide in and out of frame, filigree detailing – snaps of vocals, found sound, jarring keys, mournful clarinet – coalesce and dissolve. Where you end up is not where you begin, and no matter how many times you listen to Chance of Rain, it will never give up its secrets.
In A Poem Unlimited
In the same year that Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court – a man who went on to face accusations of sexual assault and misconduct by multiple women – Meg Remy released this, a record that seemingly filtered a millennia of female rage through disco grooves and euphoric chord progressions. Across the album’s suite of psychodramas and revenge fantasies, men (yes, all) are presented as part of the same rotten, oppressive system. “As if you couldn’t tell/ I’m mad as hell,” Remy sings on the album’s centrepiece M.A.H., a track which sounds like Blondie channelling Valerie Solanas.
I'm New Here
I’m New Here was Gil Scott-Heron‘s first collection of original material in 16 years, an exultant return for the once homeless recovering addict. Helmed by XL’s Richard Russell who created a bed of stark, minimalist electronics, this was the sound of someone who had lived, who’d seen it all. The cover of Smog’s road-to-redemption title track worked perfectly and the sampling of Kanye West – five years after Kanye had sampled him on Late Registration – was a knowing nod to his role as a forefather of hip-hop. His grizzled voice spoke of pain and his journey. Sadly, it was to be his last studio album before he died in 2011 – but it was a fitting final testament to a brilliant talent.
Sub Pop/Bella Union
Like the LP’s artwork, Bloom is a something of a trompe l’œil. The Baltimore duo built it on traditional foundations: a prominent emphasis on melody; silky vocals; a lick of reverb; naive drum beats straight from a school music cupboard’s keyboard preset. But looked at from another angle, the record stretches and fades into additional dimensions. From the shimmering sadness of Lazuli to the magisterial harmonies of Wishes, the magic trick still beguiles. Never above catchy hooks, Beach House’s 2012 LP is as freeing – and delicious – as it was back then.
Modern Love Records
A monochromatic masterpiece, Luxury Problems is Mancunian producer Stott’s most assured record to date. A sodden and sopping wet late-night crawl – and this really is a crawl; tracks like Hatch the Plan and Numb are glacially slow. Through haunted inner-city alleyways of the mind, Stott’s 2012 album pairs hulking shafts of bass weight with Alison Skidmore’s barely there vocals to sublime effect. As rewardingly rich as it is deeply melancholy, Luxury Problems feels befitting of a decade which always felt mired in a sense of sad and sorry wrongness.
Cut 4 Me
Fade to Mind
At the time, Kelela’s debut release may have seemed merely like an insanely cool SoundCloud mixtape, but in retrospect it may well have signalled a major shift in R&B culture. An incredibly even-keeled collaboration with a bevy of producers from the Fade to Mind and Night Slugs collectives, Kelela was the first R&B artist in the 2010s to truly embrace the alternative sound that was already being established in dance music subcultures. The result was a glitchy, woozy, decade-defining blend of the mainstream and the underground.
Angels & Devils
Across Angels & Devils Kevin Martin’s immense sonic vision was stretched to breaking point over two halves. The first was a set of brooding, slightly slower pieces – such as the psychedelic and hypnotic Mi Lost with Miss Red and The Fall, a dystopian collaboration with Inga Copeland. The second was a full-fire explosion with slots from Flowdan, Death Grips and Warrior Queen adding vocal power to the colossal bass weight throughout. No one makes shuddering vibration quite like Kevin Martin and this was The Bug in technicolour with punishing yet varied compositions that further cemented his place as a true genius of the culture.
Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6
Upon hearing Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6 for the first time you’d be forgiven for thinking the album was poorly mixed. With blown-out bass, distorted vocals, wildly different track volumes, the album’s sound is as chaotic as its cover art suggests. However, where SpaceGhostPurpp is concerned, that’s all part of the magic. Borrowing from DJ Screw and the aesthetic of early aughts mixtapes, SpaceGhost placed himself at the centre of rap’s orbit, declaring himself a singular talent in as many ways as he could. Released in 2011, Blvcklvnd… still manages to sound like both a collage of the hip-hop that had preceded it and a premonition of the generation of SoundCloud rappers that would come next.
If their first two records established Arcade Fire as cult favourites, it was The Suburbs that secured their legacy as a generation-defining act. If Neon Bible was their apocalypse album, The Suburbs was like waking up to find the world hadn’t ended after all; airy and orchestral on the surface but marked by a sense of unease. While its political commentary now feels outdated at best and eye-roll inducing at worst, We Used to Wait now sounds like the ominous precursor to the Charlie Brooker-light horror of Everything Now – there’s no denying the album’s quality of instrumentation or the earnestness of sentiment.
Home, Like Noplace Is There
The “emo revival” of the 2010s was hallmarked by a cast of underground bands that owed more to formative, grungier 1990s emo than they did to the sugar-coated arena-sized offshoots of the aughts. The Hotelier might be the best of those bands. And Home, Like Noplace Is There, their intense and evocative sophomore record, is their best album. The day before they released it, lead singer Christian Holden posted a note on the band’s Tumblr. “Our new album deals with some real dark stuff…” he wrote before concluding, “Apparently we are emo now. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” Emo? Sure, but delivered in such a way that melodrama is replaced with sincerity, and exaggeration is softened by self-awareness.
Atlantic Records/300 Entertainment
Halfway through the decade, Young Thug was the most happening extra-terrestrial in the rap game; his strange yelps, coos and ticks forming a kind of forbidden incantation that contorted the genre in curious new ways. The enormity of this build-up demanded Barter 6 – the first Thugger project made available for commercial release – to be a creative peak and, sure enough, it remains his most focused work to date, packed with full-bodied songs built on unostentatious beats that parade the ATLien’s transformative sensibilities.
Dean Van Nguyen
Joy as an Act of Resistance
Any record that opens with a track as explosive as Colossus was bound to gift its creators with success, but few could have predicted the global explosion in popularity that followed the release of IDLES’ second album Joy as an Act of Resistance. From the pro-immigrant sentiment of Danny Nedelko to the vulnerability of Samaritans, the record’s accessible mix of political rage and deliberate optimism, combined with pop-worthy choruses, brought IDLES new fans from across the world. The Bristol boys have barely spent a day off tour since.
Safe in the Hands of Love
With Hollywood’s avalanche of reboots, pop culture in the late 2010s felt bogged down by a dearth of new ideas. In music, the final years of the decade brought us plenty of releases which weren’t bound by retromania, but we did see a lot of artists we know and love deliver on an already established aesthetic. So the newness of Yves Tumor’s Safe in the Hands of Love packed a punch. A breakthrough for the artist, who moved from PAN to Warp for the release, it was sulky, moody and seductively stylish. Melding stuttering production and sublime noise with a lush Britpop sway, its PAN-goes-pop template became an instant cult classic, forging bridges between worlds that felt previously disconnected.
With Carti’s fanbase seemingly fated to subside on leaks and stitched-together YouTube loosies, listening to Playboi Carti in full is an almost bittersweet experience. Pairing alchemical production from Pi’erre Bourne and Harry Fraud with the Atlanta-born rapper’s live-wire ad-libs, Playboi Carti effectively put an end to the mind-numbing mumble rap debate (Carti would later jab on Die Lit that he “bought a crib for [his] mama off that mumbling shit”) with tracks like New Choppa and dothatshit! He proved, once and for all, that delivery is just as – if not more – important than lyrical content.
Tyler, the Creator
A shimmering fusion of the brash hip-hop with which he made his name and the 80s-indebted indie and soul where he went next, on Flower Boy, Tyler, the Creator perfected the sound he’d been toying with since Analog 2. Entirely self-produced, though supported by a cast of collaborators from throughout his career, Flower Boy also serves as a bookend for the first chapter of Tyler’s career. His outlandish humour on tracks like Who Dat Boy was reigned in and balanced out by mature and strikingly vulnerable lyricism on Garden Shed. Ultimately, Flower Boy set the stage for his transformation into IGOR earlier this year.
Columbia Records/Tan Cressida
Upon his return from Samoa, Earl shrugged off the young anti-Christ persona he’d cultivated on his earliest singles, opting instead for an album of confessional, ambitious rhymes. Enlisting everyone from RZA to his Odd Future compatriots Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator, Doris saw Earl set his sights on hip-hop’s horizon, testing longer flows, dodging hooks and experimenting with murkier beats on cuts like Hoarse. Meanwhile tracks like Chum and Hive remain some of his best, balancing the winding rap style that has defined his recent offerings with precise songwriting and devastating lyricism.
Show Me the Body
Show Me the Body’s inventive take on the predictability of hardcore punk is ever-evolving, and that process can be heard in action on their sprawling 2016 album Body War. As influenced by hip-hop as it is by metal and Ian MacKaye, the record makes frequent surprising left-turns across its tight, 30-minute runtime, using listeners’ expectations of hardcore’s corners, edges and breakdowns as a roadmap from which to diverge. The result is something eclectic that knows where it comes from, but which also feels genuinely brand new.
In his relatively short life, Dev Hynes has accomplished more than most musicians do in their entire career – multiple bands, projects, collabs and artistic statements, and all of them are excellent. Freetown Sound, however, was a changing point, the album where all the things that made Blood Orange so arresting – 80s instrumentation, silky smooth vocals, race politics, A-grade guest stars – all gelled into a perfect whole. It’s an accomplishment he’s carried with him, and it’s proven to be the foundation of every life-affirming record he’s released since.
When Novelist first burst through in 2014, he was the brightest of a clutch of young MCs that included Stormzy and AJ Tracey. Dubbed the “new face of grime”, he was snapped up by Rinse and then XL – but then things went quiet. While his contemporaries became household names, Novelist seemed to exit the scene completely, before resurfacing in 2018 with a completely singular debut LP. Self-written, self-produced, self-released and with no guests, Novelist Guy is the vision of an artist refusing to compromise. Rough, heavy but defiantly upbeat, this is the sound of a young man forging a path of his own.
Let’s do a test: have you heard Dancing on My Own in the past, say, two weeks? Were you sick of it? Exactly. Let’s be honest, most albums fall out of rotation in a matter of days, but Body Talk seems to have remained in the public consciousness since it was released damn near 10 years ago. Any one of the singles on this record is more than enough to sustain any pop star’s career for years, which is why, when Robyn returned last year with her long-awaited follow-up, tracks from Body Talk still sounded as fresh and vibrant as ever even when performed alongside new material. In another 10 years, we’ll still be wiping our tears on the dancefloor like it’s 2010.
Darren Cunningham’s third record, R.I.P., hit the sweet spot between dancefloor and home listening, challenging his Detroit-centric points of reference but remaining on the right side of functionality. By contrast his fourth, Ghettoville, was met with a frustrated backlash. According to some, it was too knotted, too long. As is so often the case, the clarity of hindsight reveals this dense, twisted city of an album – difficult and uncomfortable though it is in places – to be his most lasting of the decade.
Anohni’s return in 2016 with HOPELESSNESS marked a sea-change in the deployment of subject matter within her music. Songs about child molesting, drone strikes and presidential failings were delivered with a level of accessibility usually reserved for more benign pop artists. Much of this was down to the production from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, whose maximal futurist beats complimented the huge questions she posed throughout – most notably on the astounding Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth? As the decade comes to a close and the climate apocalypse occupies more mental space than ever, HOPELESSNESS’ messages have become more urgent than ever.
With Dark Energy, footwork’s finest album artist crafted one of the more nerve-jangling debuts of the decade, turning in an LP’s worth of precision-engineered blasts straight from the furnace of hell’s own steel factory. Each of the album’s 11 tracks sees Jerrilynn Patton mangling drums into unnatural positions, rarely supported by anything more than pellets of sub-bass and spatters of vocals shorn of any semblance of humanity. This, it should go without saying, is a good thing. Forget Lou Reed’s wall of feedback; Jlin makes the real metal machine music.
Puberty is a turbulent period. One filled with sudden mood swings, angst and fluctuating hormones. Or, at least, that’s what puberty feels like on Mitski’s fourth album, which is drenched in sadness and carries the weight of depression in its lyrics. She sings about wanting to ace the interview and see more of the world on My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars, mines the tensions of cultural mores on Your Best American Girl, and explores the fleeting sense of joy with a lover on Happiness. With Puberty 2, Mitski spoke to a generation of disappointed millennials – one defined by a mental health crisis and extended adolescence, with Gen Y-ers wondering if they’re doomed to feel stuck in the emotions of teenagehood forever.
It’s hard to know what to make of Danny Brown’s wildly explicit bars on XXX now. The album that made his career, XXX is overflowing with crude bars, outlandish sex jokes and tales that still shock nine years after its release. While Brown doesn’t spare himself on the record, admitting his own ‘softness’ and inserting himself (no pun intended) into the canon of rappers who let their freak flag fly, by his own admission, there are some misogynistic lyrics on this album. Crucially though, Brown never tries to glamourise his obscenity, instead amplifying his more depraved instincts to the point of near insanity and turning the streets of Detroit into a hall of mirrors.
Venezuelan producer Arca had previously fashioned her sound into avant-garde digital collages – her voice heavily distorted amongst the layers. On her third self-titled album, the producer, for the first time, confronted pain and pleasure by placing her voice at the forefront of her compositions. The result was an album that’s vulnerable, intimate and more personal than her past works. Mournful vocals are accompanied by delicate strings, classical instruments, lyrics on love and longing, and production that evokes an apocalyptic future. On Arca, the producer had finally shed her skin and unlocked a sound she had stowed away, having deemed her voice as not “pretty enough”. Haunting, cathartic and heavenly in equal measure.
Let it be said: Deafheaven turned even the staunchest metal naysayers into goths – even if it was just for one album. The San Francisco band’s second album, and, arguably their masterpiece, saw their heavy sound reach dizzying new heights, moving seamlessly between crushing black metal, triumphant post-rock and soft balladry, at times all within one song. This album plays out like an epic saga; a story within a story. As every overdriven guitar part and fuzzy shriek burns with an emotional intensity, Sunbather feels wholly human.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Drake’s greatest skill is his ability to give music a sense of mood and weather. The fresh breeze of Nothing Was the Same, the overcast greys of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the kaleidoscopic twilight of More Life. Nothing in his catalogue does that better than Take Care – rich with luxurious low-lit textures and instant-classic hits. It’s the first full realisation of his rap-sing agenda, counterpointing rap game braggadocio with the sensitivity he’d become known for. It’s also the best example of Drake’s ambition; a cohesive studio album that owes as much to Quincy Jones as it does Birdman. It was after Take Care that, truly, nothing was the same.
On her debut, SZA said she was “taking the power back” and it didn’t take long for her to exert it – on album opener Supermodel she declares: “I’ve been secretly banging your homeboy.” But power to the New Jersey singer is about more than the triumphs of revenge sex. From the longing of Drew Barrymore to the hook-ups, shared partners and side chick laments that litter the album – not to mention those feelings of not measuring up (“Wish I was the type of girl you take over to mama”) – Ctrl veers through all of the gritty parts of dating too. In 2017, when the discourse on sex-positive feminism unfolded across the internet, there was SZA; deftly weaving through the nuanced narratives of millennial situationships – radiating the power of being fully in ctrl of her voice.
In 2014, D’Angelo was on the cusp of fading into obscurity. His last album, Voodoo, had all but defined the neo-soul genre, but that was way back in 2000, when the music industry still had two legs to stand on. Black Messiah had become one of those mythical follow-up albums – so when it actually delivered, it was like a glorious magic trick. As if broadcast from a Harlem baptist church on Neptune, Black Messiah put D’Angelo back on top immediately and R&B fans everywhere were swaddled in the relief that his genius had never left him.
Oneohtrix Point Never
Few could have predicted that the 2010s would usher in a wave of new age-adjacent producers setting their gear to cosmic. Among this number was Daniel Lopatin whose experiments in synthesiser music took cues from drone and noise (his Chuck Person alias, meanwhile, found unspeakable pathos in 80s MOR: vaporwave before vaporwave). His third album, Returnal, remains, arguably, his most cohesive statement. Besides the opening blast of noise, Returnal’s power comes from its narrow focus: off-balance arpeggios, subtly distorted vocals and blinking synth leads all develop slowly, as if on universe time. Sublime, foreboding and truly original.
The 10s were Rihanna’s, and across the decade she transcended music as actress, icon and multi-industry mogul. She’s been so busy handling her business that ANTI is the last, and greatest, display of her musical headspace that we have. In many ways it set the mood for her cultural takeover, bypassing traditions and sidestepping paint-by-numbers bangers altogether – even its standout single Work is deliciously laidback. Instead, ANTI shows Rihanna at her playful best. In its carefree swagger, it embodies everything we love about her: it feels real.
What a difference eight years makes. The divergence between Fever Ray’s self-titled debut and her surprise-released second album can be explained by a shift in Karin Dreijer herself – she’d divorced, come out, found a community and a sense of release. If her first record was about domestic constraint and being trapped between Concrete Walls, Plunge was anything but, and found Dreijer at her most overt and charged. She may exclaim “this country makes it hard to fuck,” on This Country – a direct challenge to the politics of being queer in a heteronormative society – yet happily, the rest of the record is a glorious ode to the excitement of newfound freedom.
House of Balloons
The spacious beats and nocturnal melodies of House of Balloons marked the start of a new age for R&B sonically. Even up until the late 00s, the genre was measured on soulfulness and honesty. The Weeknd’s anonymity, art school samples and obsessional, lyrical content ushered in a generation of artists creating something far more wicked. Released for free on his website directly from his bedroom in Toronto one cold March, the tape shifted the parameters of the genre into a darker, more experimental universe. Worlds away from Daft Punk collaborations and Adam Sandler movies and not even classified as an album, House of Balloons is the closest Abel Tesfaye ever came to perfection.
Your Queen Is a Reptile
Sons of Kemet
Sons of Kemet’s Shabaka Hutchings wants you to know that the British monarchy is a subjugating, false idol, and that he isn’t happy about it. Over nine tracks of gut-busting tuba courtesy of Theon Cross, polyrhythmic drumming from Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford and Hutchings’ own circular breathing intensity, they put forward a list of alternative queens – Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and Ada Eastman – their arguments wrapped up in the improvisatory crucible of their playing. This is a jazz manifesto harking back to a firebrand Afrocentrism; a tonic for any and all ambivalence.
Catalonia’s best export since pa amb tomàque, Talabot’s debut LP – released on early 10s dance stalwart Permanent Vacation – saw the Barcelona-based producer exceeding the promise of his brilliant early singles. ƒIN runs the gamut from rainforest-ready slow-motion rollers (Depak Ine) to Panorama-Bar-at-sunrise deep house (When the Past Was Present) via Temptations-sampling tear-jerkers (So Will Be Now…) and Balearic-tinged alt-pop (Destiny), all in fine style.
Blackstar’s experimental music slips in and out of focus, mirroring the mind of a man coming to grips with his own mortality. On the transcendent Lazarus, Bowie goes from talking about being in heaven to wrenchingly confessing: “I’ve got nothing left to lose”. These songs are about living for the moment, but also looking beyond this world too. According to producer Tony Visconti, Bowie wanted Blackstar to replicate the cinematic atmosphere of a Kendrick Lamar album – proof that Bowie, even on his deathbed, still had the hunger to be at the forefront of pop culture. It’s a thrilling left turn and deserves to be ranked among the pop iconoclast’s very best records.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is Kanye at the height of his powers as a showman and crowd pleaser. With every new trick and guest, West further enraptured his audience, enlisting everyone from Rihanna to Bon Iver to prove those unsure of 808 Heartbreaks’ new direction, wrong. Even in its worst moment (Jay-Z’s supernatural roll call on Monster, really?) Fantasy was cementing Kanye’s status as his generation’s defining hip-hop star. Hov’s clumsy verse is immediately offset by what may still be the peak of Nicki Minaj’s lyrical talents. Looking back, Fantasy may feel like the zenith of ‘the old kanye’, but in 2010, West could do no wrong.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Fantasy Trash Can
Father, Son, Holy Ghost was the last thing San Francisco band Girls released before lead singer Christopher Owens announced he was leaving the band via a Twitter thread that also broke the news to his musical partner Chet “JR” White. Strange then, that their post-breakup LP remains the most straightforwardly joyous LPs of the last 10 years.
Across 11 tracks of sunburnt pop, the pair perfected their spotless sound, cementing their reputation as the greatest band that barely happened. My Ma, Vomit, Saying I Love You: these are songs that plumb the rich reserves of 20th century Americana, while flushing a very modern longing through their veins. In another universe, Christopher Owens is a movie star. Father, Son, Holy Ghost remains his greatest picture.
One Little Indian
In hindsight, we should not have expected Björk’s take on the break-up album to be anything less than the primordial deluge of emotional trauma that is Vulnicura. The dissolution of her relationship and family unit are depicted with painful realism on the elegiac History of Touches and the bleak sprawl of 10-minute opus Black Lake, even as the record’s proggy formlessness and obtuse deployment of beats position the project as her most experimental work to date. It is far from an easy or passive listen, but as she so brilliantly intuits on Notget: “Don’t remove my pain/ It is my chance to heal”.
Whatever you think about her recent pivot to billionaire-adjacency, it’s hard to deny that Claire Boucher has been one of the defining musicians of the 2010s. Her most enduring body of work is undoubtedly 2012’s Visions, her third full-length release. Visions frequently achieves a golden ratio between grounded pop songwriting sensibilities and ethereal-feeling electronic transcendence, by way of a seamless, cyborg-like blend of Boucher’s voice and her complex, layered instrumentation. It was and is, to say the least, visionary.
Boy's Don't Cry
The Frank Ocean record we were all waiting for. It followed a protracted waiting period while Ocean filled the void with zines, experimental carpentry and side-album Endless, released to fulfill the last of his obligations with Def Jam and ending a four-year silence. Blonde is a clean break; it’s Frank Ocean set free. It’s an album of fluidity and impermanence. Stunning arrangements dissolve mid-song and float into some new elegant form. Pitched down vocals sound druggy and dissociating. Memories are glimpsed, lovers appear in past tense, relationships, youth and fame are viewed from the rear view mirror. Even André 3000 is plagued by uncertainty as he ponders the fleeting nature of wealth and glory. But the more time spent with Blonde the more rewarding it becomes, revealing so many perfect moments it has a sort of mystic seduction, subtly gorgeous and somehow devastating at once.
Liz Harris has always dealt in subtlety, whether it’s the bare, introspective quality of her output as Grouper, or the private nature of her personal life. When she released 2014’s Ruins, her “unplugged” record, her craft was crystallised. Recorded in a small Portuguese village, the album serves as a document; a tribute to her daily, miles-long walk from the studio to the beach, but also as an acknowledgment to a failed love – confronted most explicitly on the paralysing beauty of Call Across Rooms. Suspended in its understated grandeur, Ruins is ostensibly Harris’ most accomplished work to date.
Rachel Grace Almeida
Push the Sky Away
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Bad Seed Ltd
It was Nick Cave himself who best described Push the Sky Away when he said it was a “ghost-baby in the incubator, and Warren [Ellis]’s loops are its tiny, trembling heartbeat” (you’re doing me out of a job here, Nick). It was the first in what would be a trilogy that became overshadowed by the unimaginable tragedy of subsequent records, Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen.
Sonically this record set the tone, ushered in by Warren Ellis’ weightless, eerily and elegantly atmospheric clatter which soundtracked Cave’s fiery, beautiful words. Higgs Boson Blues, a song that begins and ends with Cave groaning “can’t remember anything at all”, and Jubilee Street might just be the best songs they’ve ever recorded. Few musicians would have expected to hit their musical peak in their 50s or with their 15th album – but Nick Cave is not like any other artist.
If there was ever a fragment of doubt that J Hus was going to be a star, it disappeared the moment Jae5 hit the opening chords of Common Sense. Orchestral and jubilant, the lavish instrumental of the record’s title track lays the foundation for an album so triumphant you can hear Hus grinning through every bar. Bolstered by a string of well-loved singles – who, honestly could choose between Did You See? and Friendly? – Hus’ debut album saw him perfect his art, helping to define the emergent sound of Afroswing in the process. From the tongue-in-cheek braggadocio of Bouff Daddy to the defiant Spirit, on Common Sense, Hus raised the bar for every MC in the country.
Glass Swords sounds like the soundtrack to a Sega Mega Drive game your eldest cousin told you about when you were 12, but wouldn’t let you play. Fizzing, crystalline and joyously frantic, Rustie’s debut bounces between old skool rave, trap and that weird period when Skrillex was transforming dubstep into EDM with wild abandon. We defy anyone not to be transported, Tron-like, to the moment they first heard this record when the opening of Ultra Thizz effervesces into being. What’s more, cuts like Surph and Hover Traps point down the road that PC Music would take to critical acclaim, paving the way for the revolution that SOPHIE would start with Bipp. A glimpse into the club sounds of the future, Glass Swords sounds every bit as vital eight years on.
This album is so old. It arrived when one sight of Kanye’s face projected on buildings would generate manic delight, not fear that he had been appointed Secretary of Commerce. So yes it’s old, yet not dated. The topics stared down, the blown-out crunch backing his screams, and intense centrifugal force of all these collaborators spinning together remain absolute dynamite. Kanye’s legacy as the godhead of our times as-yet-untainted and something to celebrate with your full chest. The thunderous opening of Black Skinhead, the sheer odd-ball nature of Bound 2 and egoism of I Am A God; it was Kanye unleashed, riding MBDTF’s legacy into the sun. 2013 was a fun year. And Yeezus was the biggest riot of all of them.
Forget the decade – Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter is the defining artist of this entire generation. Who else could take something as personal as a troubled marriage and turn it into an indelible pop culture moment, with no preamble or promo? Having already ushered in the era of the surprise drop with her self-titled album in 2013, with Lemonade, Bey gave us her Thriller, her Pet Sounds, her Nevermind: an album that transcends the mainstream, transcends genre, and transitions the artist from blockbuster hit maker to undeniable genius. By tethering her personal life to greater themes of race, identity and wealth in America, Beyoncé reached a peak that she has yet to come down from.
Tha Tour Pt.1
Cash Money Records
Unveiled during the peak of Young Thug’s prolific run of mixtapes, Tha Tour Part 1 provided a refreshing demonstration in streamlining and direction. In fact, the mixtape was such a musically refined piece of work that the discussion around whether or not Thug and Rich Homie Quan’s elastic, melodious style qualified as rap suddenly felt all the more arbitrary.
Thug’s splattery flow is counterpointed by Quan’s more traditional, sculpted delivery while Birdman’s overlord presence brings a level of prestige that places the record in the rap pantheon. Spacious, piano-heavy beats from London on da Track give the tape a glimmery sheen that spans the best in both A-list hip-hop and classic R&B.
The story of Young Thug and the distribution of rap music in this decade is one hallmarked by impermanence – albums which never materialised, landmark projects leaking and artists locked in deals with labels incapable of keeping up with their output. Tha Tour Part 1 transcended that climate completely. A glowing career high for modern rap’s most enigmatic innovator.
Lana Del Rey
Ultraviolence marks a moment of becoming for Lana Del Rey. Ever since Video Games, critics had railed against her perceived inauthenticity – but rather than engaging, she doubled down on her vision: a heightened reality gilded in sadness that transcended the critical stonewalling. Yes, she’d hinted at what was to come with Born to Die but, audacious as it was, her debut did little more than set the scene and determine the blocking. On Ultraviolence, the drama unfolded.
Now we were introduced to the interior world of Lana Del Rey, an antiheroine who luxuriated in toxic relationships. The atmosphere of bracing desolation is embellished by little more than ringing guitars and orchestral flourishes, allowing lines like “mimicking me’s a fucking bore” maximum impact. The surety of her art was so great, in fact, that she landed a blow on critics who’d previously waxed misogynistic, on Fucked My Way to the Top. Del Rey, clearly, caught us all off guard: we thought we had her figured out. She was way ahead of us.
FKA twigs emerged fully-formed; her pair of debut EPs presented an artist with a singular vision, raw talent and a sound that was as inviting as it was hard to define. She didn’t really have anything to prove with the release of an album proper, but if she did, LP1 damn well proves it a lifetime over, ad infinitum.
Across nine tracks (and one polyphonic hallucination of an intro), twigs charts a bold new sonic terrain for R&B, influencing an ensuing half-decade of imitators who failed to live up to this record’s sheer audacity. The arrangements here are skeletal and layered with surgical precision, like the meandering bassline which spins itself into a melodic cyclone on the magnificently paced Two Weeks. The nonlinear construction produces genre-inversions that still sound breathtaking; Give Up is trap by way of the funhouse mirror, while the instrumentation of Pendulum interlocks enough elements to remain unclassifiable entirely.
At the album’s bleeding, breaking heart, twigs offers a futurist document of intimacy, eschewing neither the highs of carnal pleasure nor the devastating lows of emotional isolation. Hers is a dark outlook, but if we accept twigs as ahead of her time, which of us is fool enough to expect a happy ending?
Speaking of the eureka moment behind his debut album, Jam City explained that he would “isolate a soft Kerri Chandler organ chord or a bell texture and let those really powerful elements hang there.” Little did he know, the process he was explaining – taking familiar ideas and abstracting them from their context to form radical new structures – would go on to inspire one of the decade’s most exciting musical movements (and most infamous buzzword): deconstructed club.
At the time of release, Classical Curves sounded unlike anything that had come before. Although packed with references to Detroit house, funk, grime and and Jersey club, these elements had been exploded and reassembled beyond recognition. The rhythms were stop-start; the drums exploded like malfunctioning machinery; and all recognisable sounds had been re-rendered with a hyperreal gloss sheen. Perhaps more than any electronic album of the decade, Classical Curves sounded unrelentingly like the future. Today, the album’s sonic hallmarks are still being rehashed and reinterpreted to create some of the most exciting, exhilarating and bewildering moments found on the dancefloor.
Apocalypse, girl is Jenny Hval at her mischievous best. Twisting pop-informed ideas around a narrative of introspection and mass destruction, she brings big sweeping themes into focus with razor sharp wit; joining the dots between womens’ experience through extreme close ups and sprawling existential narratives. Her fifth solo record, it spiralled from childhood dreams to post-feminism via Armageddon, and “the huge, capitalist clit” – but never felt pretentious. Hval used Apocalypse, girl to think on post-feminist deception and the traps of domestic pursuits within a pop palette, and it’s in this she secures her most rewarding results. This soft hallucinatory experience reaches its peak on Sabbath. “I’m six or seven and dreaming I’m a boy,” she begins. It’s a lucid depiction of warping gender identity, at once focused and abstract, set to a bright, skittering pace, and captures the reasons Hval’s work is so beguiling. A politically-charged fever dream.
To Pimp a Butterfly
Galvanised by the growing neo-black power movement that arose following the rise of #BlackLivesMatter and a heightened sense of political consciousness among young people, To Pimp a Butterfly mirrored a moment of culture shift. After Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, Kendrick widened his gaze, seeking to capture the collective feeling of a generation exasperated by state violence, institutional racism and police brutality.
Few songs were able to articulate this growing sentiment quite like Alright, which became the battlecry at protests across the world. Ultimately, though, Kendrick’s third studio album captures the history of black America by honouring of the lineage of jazz, rap and funk. You could argue that the album’s cover art holds even more weight now, when President Donald Trump resides in the White House and the idea of ‘blacking out’ the lawn is a distant dream, but significantly, it’s a stark reminder that those who helped build America are still suffering the consequences of being black.
Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides
From her very first release, SOPHIE was an enigma. Affiliated with PC Music, the public speculated over her gender, even accusing her of appropriating femininity. Fast forward to 2018 and the video for It’s Okay to Cry reveals her face. It signalled a new era for the producer, one who’d previously seemed camera-shy.
Then there’s her sound: more emphatic, more ambitious. SOPHIE had previously stated that “genre is a stupid question” and she pushed her boundary-blind approach with Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. Synthetic sounds are tied to questions of artificiality and authenticity. Distorted vocals by Cecile Believe scale across octaves, unbound by notions of gender and the human voice. SOPHIE taught listeners that their reality can be of their own making; fun and fluid. Above all, Oil of… was the sound of transcendence; it glowed with an optimism that still feels revolutionary.
A Seat at the Table
At this point, it seems borderline insulting to bring up Beyoncé when referencing Solange; she has more than proven herself to be an iconic and ingenious artist in her own right. But that wasn’t the case before she released A Seat at the Table. As a singer, Solange had struggled to find her footing, and while she had a few hits under her belt, nothing had connected enough for her to break out of her family name and blaze her own path.
All that changed with Cranes in the Sky, an ode to finding the strength to love yourself in spite of the trappings of modern living. Suddenly, Solange had found her vision, and it had been there all along – the strength and vulnerability of being a black woman, the unapologetic urge to demand her space in the world. Don’t Touch My Hair, FUBU, Where Do We Go – these songs are anthems, and more than that, they refuse to kowtow to the status quo, which in some sort of satisfying irony, is why they are so universally beloved.
In an era where conserving your sanity can be challenging to say the least, ASATT is a life raft amidst a churning ocean of uncertainty and rage.
Let England Shake
There is a mournful shimmer that smothers Polly Jean Harvey’s 2011 masterpiece, Let England Shake. The Great War – one of the most seismic events in European history – is a bleak subject to take on, and in the hands of Harvey, she mines maximum devastation. See, for instance, the lilting guitar that accompanies On Battleship Hill, on which Harvey laments: “On Battleship Hill’s caved in trenches/ A hateful feeling still lingers/ Even now, 80 years later/ Cruel nature/ Cruel, cruel nature”.
Her eye is sharp and unflinching. On The Words That Maketh Murder she observes the carnage: “soldiers fall like lumps of meat” and “arms and legs were in the trees”. The evocative and disturbing imagery offers warning signs that ring loud and clear in our unstable, divided times. The futility of bureaucracy summed up when she wryly wonders “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” – an institution designed to prevent such wars from happening again. A potent turn of phrase in 2019.
The Great War did shake England, with a force that would see trauma trickle down into subsequent generations. As soldiers advance on All and Everyone, Harvey recreates the pace of a charge to chilling effect, never losing sight of the inevitability at its heart: “death was everywhere”. Nine years on from the release of Let England Shake, its power to shock remains undiminished. We should pay close attention.
The only full-length album ever released by DJ Rashad is far from the definitive document of Chicago footwork, the genre that crept into dance music like a jungle vine during the 00s, changing the rhythmic mathematics of the floor forever. But where the Bangs & Works compilations offered the jagged blueprints of a breakthrough style, and LPs by originals like RP Boo pushed the sound to its toughest extremities, no one hit the heady heights of footworking soul like Rashad.
Along with his Teklife co-conspirator DJ Spinn – who features on most of Double Cup’s tracks along with Taso, Manny, Earl, DJ Phil and the UK’s Addison Groove – Rashad knew exactly how to extract the blunted, blissed-out core of footwork. Double Cup is the ecstatic pinnacle of that approach, spanning woozy, fat-headed funk (Show U How), pitch-dark misanthropy (the iconic I Don’t Give a Fuck) and cripplingly emotional soul flips, like the Floetry-sampling Let U No, perhaps the most beautiful footwork track ever conceived. Who knew that so much pure, skin-tingling affect could be wrought from tracks called I’m Too Hi and Drank Kush Barz? It’s hard not to ruminate on what might have been, had Rashad not passed away six months after its release; the sheer immediacy of these 14 tracks suggests that he was only just getting to grips with his crossover potential. Still, Double Cup remains a timeless epitaph to an irreplaceable talent. Rest in power.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D City
Even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.” That’s the concise theorem on life delivered by The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Charlie Kelmeckis, 15, as he surveyed his suburban Pittsburgh reality. What Charlie didn’t say is that you can choose loyalty to your home soil. Fluke of birth placed Kendrick Lamar in Compton; love for his city led him to spin his own coming-of-age saga.
Taking us on a tour of the same streets that Eazy-E once steered his Chevrolet Impala, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City captures economic degradation, hardened male bonds and brutal violence in a corner of America that was once a byword for urban mismanagement. The battle for Lamar’s soul is viscerally played out, whether it’s in the offering of a few shots of liquor, or the pressure to partake in bloody retribution.
On Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, Lamar delivers a mournful requiem that would put the button on an entire career and life. We now know that he was just getting started. King Kendrick’s ultimate choice was to write dissertations on national erosion and political reckoning that encapsulated the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement. But Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was the origin story. Great coming-of-age tales don’t necessarily require exceptional humans as protagonists – Lamar certainly was that. But on this album, he cuts to the bone by presenting as a single human in Compton’s 97,000.
Dean Van Nguyen
The second decade in an already exhausted century. How has it felt? Endless? Overwhelming? To put it bluntly, it has been a period – particularly in the UK – summed up by paradox. Huge acceleration and total paralysis. Future shocks and ghosts of history. Perhaps that’s why, as the 2010s draw to a close, BLACK METAL stands out to us as the definitive LP of the era. From the airy wash of opener LUSH to the final rumbles of GRADE, it is a record as dark and emotionally unclear as the time that created it.
Dean Blunt’s reputation remains that of the prankster. The roll-call of his stunts – from sending a stooge up to collect his NME Award in 2015, to selling toy cars stuffed full of weed on eBay – have seen him talked about as a post-modern piss-taker. When it was released in 2014, reactions to BLACK METAL were typically half-baked, from misclassifying it as hip-hop to dismissing it as “difficult”. What’s striking then, re-listening five years on, is what a work of beauty it is. The ominous Blade Runner swells that give way to crowing saxophones, the brief dub trips that scatter into smoke. Love songs; songs about loss; songs about escape. The way a spectral Joanne Robertson drifts through the album like something half remembered; sometimes duetting with her lead, at other points like she’s been dreamt up in a cloud. Then there is Blunt: an estranged, stoic figure who half-sings, half-talks. Sometimes sneering, often tired.
Dean Blunt may not be the greatest artist of the past decade – it’s a role he likely has no interest in playing – but in his 2014 album he created the most unique musical artefact of our strange, lonely time. It is disoriented, vulnerable and knotted with detail. Po-faced and ironic, yet bursting with humanity. A snatch of glory that occurs when a unique personality tangles with the universe. No other record this decade sounds like BLACK METAL, and it is doubtful one will ever again.