*tba’s Albums of the Decade
Welcome, everyone, to the list of the objectively best albums of this decade – except not really. We (as in the people who contributed to the piece, thank you to everyone involved) each wrote about an amount of albums from the 2010s that we had the time and motivation to write about. The author whose individual fault each entry is will be mentioned so you can direct your rage towards the right people. Besides featuring some egregious, questionable, and just outright pretentious picks for our albums of the decade, this list also manages to leave out a lot. We request your forgiveness if your favourite album didn’t make it on here, but feel free to tell us what it is, we do read our emails every now and then. Now have fun.
Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
We lost quite a few musicians this decade (David Bowie, Prince, Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack, to name only those who I can up with off the top of my head). The loss that hurt me most was Leonard Cohen, a Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter who started his career in the late sixties and kept making music until his death in November 2016. Now, I won’t get into the usual dull life-story diorama reviews often spiral into, but trust me, Cohen’s music was important to me.
Before his last album, Cohen had just come back from one of the usual streaks of lost creativity that come with a long life as an artist. With Old Ideas, he adapted more of a bluesy style he continued on the follow-up Popular Problems.
Seeing this, his last album is a bit of a surprise. Where the prior albums were written in the spirit of an old man who has moved past life’s meaningless problems, Cohen had to face that he was about to die in the process of making this album. So he went back to his Jewish roots, ending the first track with the simple, but powerful Hebrew prayer Hineni (Here I am), signifying his readiness to die. The influence of Jewish spirituality continues with the inclusion of the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir from Westmount, Quebec. While spirituality and bible-related metaphors were always a topic of his work, the premise here seems (excuse me) darker. It wouldn’t be a Cohen album if it didn’t talk about love, too. A dying man still has business on this earth and it is to clean his heart of his last love. “Treaty” asks for exactly that, love as a war that he hopes to end with the pleading for a peace treaty. No more demands are to be made from Cohen’s side (“I do not care who takes this bloody hill”); he is past the point of senseless pride. The recurring of this song as string reprise signifies its importance for the album. Cohen is maybe the most fragile he ever was in a love song here. I will miss his voice.
André 3000 – Look Ma No Hands
You still remember Outkast, right? The one rap act I am sure even my mum will recognize given the right song. Half of that duo is André 3000, who mostly stuck to features and background work after the (maybe best) hip-hop duo split up. Unless you know André’s work on his half of the group’s last album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, the premise of “Three Stacks” making a jazz EP might seem alien to you.
The Love Below showed that André could do just about anything, not just the best Southern hip-hop of two decades. And on this EP, silently published on Soundcloud in honor of his late parents, “Three Stacks” shows that jazz is definitely his playing field.
Look Ma No Hands is split into two songs, one piano ballad titled Me and My (To Bury Your Parents) and the title track, 17-minute avant-garde jazz piece. Me and My is so simple and so intimate, listing memories of his parents (“Me and my father driving to the football game/Me ridin’ shotgun, my window rolled down/He sipped Cognac and kept us all laughin’/I was much happier when he was around”) with a haunting bridge that has some of the best vocal effect usage in such a context. The song fades out into the repetition of the phrase “me and my” slowly degrading into “me” only as André tries to come to terms with an emptier world.
On “Look Ma No Hands”, André 3000 takes up the bass clarinet and tells the same story, but this time as jazz interplay between him and none other than James Blake on piano. The bass clarinet paints pictures, sings of laughter and sobs, and tells the journey of a lifetime with and then suddenly without your parents. The playing is nothing short of amazing and even more emotional than the piano ballad. Though we may never get a solo album from André 3000, the thought of him being very much able to is comforting.
Adele – 21
While I was thinking of writing about a couple of albums here, there’s eventually only one album that really shaped and accompanied me in the last decade: Adele’s 21. Ever since its release in January 2011, there wasn’t a year that I haven’t listened to or sung one of the songs of the album. Yes, it received its acclaim and awards. Yes, it sold well. To me it means more than ratings and numbers, however. 21 dropped at a moment in my life when I was vulnerable, when adulthood was still too far away, yet it felt imminent. Its raw emotions, its pure melancholy met my adolescent heart. I embraced every single song like true believers must cherish lines from their Holy Book. Adele’s words matched the melody of my fickle mind, filled with ideas of what love must feel like. Or not.
I remember I performed the whole album in front of a mirror at my grandparents’ house that Christmas in 2011 – almost a year after its release. I remember I sang “Someone Like You” on stage with the teacher who directed the school band just before I graduated high school. I remember I performed it at karaoke a couple of years ago. Memories of my life – the good and the b/sad ones – are attached to this album like no other. Adele created a story about despair and hope. Of endings and new beginnings. Of betrayal and trust. Of heartbreak and salvation. But, most importantly, 21 taught me to believe in myself and in my feelings.
“Set Fire to The Rain” is still one of my favourite songs because it is distilled with a tender rage, it’s an alluring revenge song. It taught me that it’s ok to cry. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to love but not be loved. It happens. And “pain demands to be felt” as John Greene said so famously in The Fault of Our Stars which I came to read a couple of years later (major throwback here). And who’s better at singing about her heartbreak than Adele? Her songs have become iconic, not because of her videos and the people she sings about, but because her songs touch us, deep down. We can relate to her stories. We know what it feels like to be disappointed when you ‘could have had it all’. We try to hold on to our “One and Only” but sometimes there are too many “Turning Tables”. Adele’s cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong” (on 19 it was “Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan) is one of the last songs on the album but together with “Someone Like You”, my favourite song of the album. The tangible tension and almost unendurable longing for the other is so bittersweet yet addictive.
Adele’s voice creates an atmosphere of intimacy wherever you are and I have as of yet found only a handful of other artists who can spellbind me while I’m driving to work in a way that Adele does. If you haven’t yet, give this one a listen and maybe you’ll be bewitched as well.
Xiu Xiu – Forget
Xiu Xiu usually isn’t known for being easy. Lyrics about sexual abuse, sung and spoken by Jamie Stewart (the only consistent member) in his appropriately unhinged style and dark, industrial synth-punky instrumentals make them a band that isn’t appropriate to show to the faint of heart. Even despite this dark aesthetic, Xiu Xiu was never a band to turn down the opportunity of being poppy every now and then. Songs like “Chocolate Makes You Happy”, “Under Pressure” (yes, a cover of the Queen and David Bowie song), and “Boy Soprano” are catchy and fun (if you don’t listen to the lyrics too much), and so Jamie Stewart apparently thought about making an entire album like that.
Not that you should play this to your mum, but this album is far more based on melodic songwriting than the attempts at destroying your aural health via metallic stabs of noise and screaming that earlier Xiu Xiu albums featured. The album starts with an intense spoken word bit by Enyce Smith (“You want to see it/You want to tick it/You want to lick it/Want to kiss it/Want to whisper in my ear bitch?/But I don’t give a fuck girl/Because you gave me a thousand bucks”) and then goes into a minimal wave pulsing with Jamie at the helm of the vocals again. Even with some sprinkles of disturbing material like the spoken word parts, occasional louder parts, and the lyrics about human trafficking and other horrific things, Forget almost leans into a New Wave/synthpop direction, especially on the enchanting dance track “Wondering”. Another highlight is the ballad “Get Up”, telling the story of a dependent relationship, climaxing in a cathartic synth fanfare after Jamie’s heartwrenching “You’re the only reason I was born” in the face of the end of said relationship.
Forget merges the beautiful and the terrifically ugly, colorful club lighting and dim, flickering lightbulbs in abandoned cellars, you catch my drift. It’s not as original as Xiu Xiu’s other work, such as 2019’s Yoruba drumming infused non-linear Girl with Basket of Fruit or the existential minimal synthpunk industrial of A Promise, but it provides those scared of the band’s other efforts with a great entry point and is a great show of hands in terms of pop songwriting.
Dizzee Rascal – Don’t Gas Me
While Wiley may have invented grime, his now estranged partner and prodigy Dizzee Rascal brought it out of the underground of pirate radio stations and towards the stage of the Mercury Prize with his album Boy in da Corner. In the time from the late 2000s to the mid-2010s, grime was not exactly thriving in the UK, losing out to countless pop rap and hip-house tracks without much inspiration behind them. But as many things do after they seem dead (which in this case is fortunate), grime came back with albums like Integrity, Konnichiwa, Godfather, and Rascal’s own Raskit.
But where Raskit had its inconsistencies, Don’t Gas Me is a barrage of 4 high-octane tunes. Not necessarily grime in the strictest sense of the word as other electronic genres like UK garage and 2-step play a big role in the sound of this EP, there is the kind of energy and playful bravado here that Dizzee had on his debut. His flows have regained their humorous dexterity, catch your ear and the lyrics are also back where they belong on a grime album.
“Tweet and tell it, call out my name, they scream and yell it/Yellin’ my bars, reach for the stars, give my regards to all of your spars/I’m dishin’ out cards, and in addition I’m dishin’ out pars/Yeah I’m in charge, like I’m the Sarge/Look at these lickle man, givin’ it large/Chuck out the letter and please give me less of the garb” (“Quality”)
Finally, UK hip-hop seems to have regained one of its best rappers.
Bastille – Wild World
Hi. Hello. It is I. Since my music taste is sort of all over the place and I’ve got absolutely no clue how to write anything even remotely coherent about music, I’m just going to write about the one (1!) album I talk about (a lot). If you’ve ever had the honour of spending more than 10 minutes basking in my presence, you may have already guessed that the album in question is none other than – drumroll, please – Wild World by Bastille.
Wild World was released – and to some extent recorded (I don’t have a source for this, I’m literally just making shit up here) – in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the ever-worsening climate crisis and Trump running for president. The album encapsulates a political climate filled with both (misguided) nostalgia for an easier past and a constant sense of anxiety, fuelled by the suffering and terror which are being broadcasted on the news and social media 24/7.
The album’s lyrics touch on various fun and fresh topics, such as the inner turmoil of wanting to switch off the news and just look away but knowing how vital it is to care, or the importance of finding comfort in interpersonal relationships. Whilst I would not go as far as to argue that Wild World is an amazing album on a technical level, I do very much think that it needs to be considered as product and reflection of the political climate it was created in and as an expression of the feelings regarding politics that many younger people may be familiar with.
And if it is considered as such, it can and should be considered a Gesamtkunstwerk (© Brian David Gilbert: All Rights Reserved). Sure, it might be kind of choppy and rough around the edges, the audio clips taken from older movies don’t necessarily always mesh well with the songs, but if anything, these things add to the sense of anxiousness the album aims to create – and thus merely consolidates its status as a Gesamtkunstwerk. Other people might disagree with me on this, but consider this: Why even listen to them, when you could just listen to me and ignore all other opinions?
I never write about music and am not sure how to end this, so I’m just going to say that I deeply care about this album, to a certain extent because some of the songs just really slap, but mainly because it makes me feel understood. And according to this niche book called 1984 (if pseudo-intellectuals on Twitter are to be believed, this is apparently the only book ever written by George Orwell), that’s what we as humans truly crave. Bye!
A$AP Rocky – LiveLoveA$AP
For a brief period in the early to 2010s, it seemed like cloud rap was the direction in which rap was heading. Atmospheric and psychedelic beats and a fresh generation of unique rappers and producers seemed to signal that purple would be the favorite color of rap this decade, with the genre spreading from coast to coast in America and from there to Europe. Of course, it came differently, and trap became the dominant sound for rap in the 2010s (which doesn’t mean cloud rap disappeared, a lot of trap takes inspiration from it)One of the first to make cloud rap popular, after its invention by producer Clams Casino and internet personality of the demi-god level Lil B, was Harlem’s A$AP Rocky, head of the titular A$AP mob.
LiveLoveA$AP has everything good cloud rap needs: the beats are soundscapes to forget yourself in (especially Clams Casino’s contributions on Palace, Bass, Wassup, Leaf and Demons blow many things that producers tried to do in this genre afterwards out of the water without overcomplicating things), and Rocky is present – and by present I mean hilariously arrogant. Now that’s not a new thing in hip hop at all, but Rocky is constantly chewing on syllables like he’s enjoying each of them, like on “Peso” –
“Never disrespected plus I’m well connected/With this coke that I imported, just important as your President/Swagger so impressive and I don’t need a necklace/But these bitches get impressed when you pull up in that 7”or just telling us how pretty he is (too many examples to pick from, but the man is telling nothing but the truth). LiveLoveA$AP is as good as it is because it is one thing that people that hate on cloud rap and trap know too little of: fun. It’s pure catharsis, the real thinking man’s music.
Standing on the Corner – Red Burns
Standing on the Corner were at the forefront of the lo-fi psychedelic sound that carried MIKE and Earl Sweatshirt through their best efforts, but they transformed it completely. Red Burns sheds the skin to which comparisons to anything before could cling. It is certainly hip-hop, but it is sound collage, jazz and neo-soul as well. Hip-hop’s trademark sampling transforms into psychedelic landscapes, the form of the mixtape becomes structural agenda: Red Burns is divided into Sides X and Y; individual songs are only subsections of this larger flowing opus and epos.
There’s a story here, but the lyrics are sometimes cryptic. In that aspect, cLOUDDEAD is another group that comes to mind: Red Burns is symbolic and tongue-in-cheek absurdist. At the same time, Red Burns is pretty political, police violence (a sample of police victim Eric Garner), the nature of violence in general (which is related to the devil as a philosophical concept in the lyrics), ghetto neighborhoods and the (titular) corner as a place of social exchange (the spoken word bits refer to “word on the corner” a lot) play important roles in the lyrics.
Between psychedelic soul songs and spoken word bits ranging from serious to telling the story of the titular Red Burns and his fight against the devil (whom Red Burns beats “three-piece and a biscuit/ I heard he was leaking”), jazzy interludes blur into the kaleidoscope of samples, and fellow New York rapper MIKE makes a remarkable (as remarkable as his apathetic delivery gets) appearance.
The strength of Red Burns is that it overwhelms you. It’s a multi-genre fusion, a broad spectrum of lyrical tones and topics, a mixtape and a concept album. I would be hard-pressed to select a single “desert island album” from this list, but the multitudes which Red Burns contains make it one of the best contenders.
Julia Holter – Aviary
Julia Holter is an artist with a lot of dedication to developing her expression through sound, songwriting and lyrics. Whereas her earlier work used to experiment with modern classical and some smaller pop elements, Have You in My Wilderness came out of left field and surprised with lush pop and baroque elements, more accessible than any former album had been. The first single for Aviary, the follow-up to her newfound indie pop success, promised similar things. “I Shall Love 2” is a beautiful, melodic song.
But then the full album came along. The double LP length was the first sign this may not be Have You in My Wilderness 2. This suspicion was confirmed when the first song started with a massive saxophone drone that went on for six minutes.
As the last paragraph might suggest, Aviary is not particularly accessible. Frustratingly enough, the second half is easier to get into than the first, which frustrates some people. But this cost is one that is definitely worth paying, considering the many colourful and novel ideas flying around in this aviary of an album. Holter makes unique use of orchestral and chamber instrumentation, prog-pop inspired song structures, and manipulation of her own voice. The plentiful instrumentation goes from more solemn moments (like “Everyday Is an Emergency”) to the irritating moments of free improvisation and the gigantic climax of “Voce Simul”. Aviary is an album to delve into, a mountain to climb, but one with an incredible view from the top.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden of Delete
Combative. Knotty. Abstract. Hyperactive. Post-consumerist. These adjectives begin to give you an idea of Daniel Lopatin’s work as Oneohtrix Point Never, but none of them quite hit the mark. You just have to listen to his music. While previous albums like 2011’s Replica might have been more focused, more cohesive, nothing Lopatin ever produced is as entirely sui generis as the whirlwind of styles, instruments, and moods that is Garden of Delete. Starting with garbled, unintelligible speech before launching at breakneck speed into the ever-changing Ezra, this album announces itself as a restless shapeshifter right from the start. Building on his experiences with plunderphonics and vaporwave, Lopatin constructs music that is clearly of its moment, a work that makes our collective information overload into the very fabric of its sound. Bouncing from plucky, almost classical instrumentation to an onslaught of electronics and back again at the drop of a hat, Garden of Delete is difficult. But in equal manner, it is fascinating, timely, and never boring.
Conor Oberst – Ruminations
Former leader of Bright Eyes, Oberst had made a name for himself in the indie folk movement with lyrics that combined emo-like expression with a level of complex lyricism rivalling the greats of 60s-70s contemporary folk and Americana. After an almost complete breakdown of his physical and mental health, Oberst wrote and recorded this album in the space of 48 hours, utilizing only guitar, piano, harmonica, and his voice.
Rumination dwells on illness, on trying to stay alive in the face of greatest mental pressure. “Counting Sheep” centres around the exhaustion of the ill, the need for sympathy without seeming needy to those you love. “Gossamer Thin” tells the stories of people balancing on the edge of the situations they are in, worn ghostly (gossamer) thin by their circumstances. Even if both of these stories relate to Oberst himself, he also tries to tell other people’s stories, like the life of translator Mamah Borthwick or the political reactions to Jane Fonda’s activism. The combination of the imperfect playing (coming from the lack of studio polish that would go into a typical album) combined with the lyrical themes of imperfection and illness creates one of the most moving expressions of times of doubt and pain to me.
And as it seems to be theme with me and articles about music, this was far too long to put into just one article, so y’all are going to have to wait a week for part two.