It is with my best imitation of a sportscaster voice that I say “and we’re back”. It seems pretty clear what we brought with us: more albums.
Tyler, the Creator – IGOR
Tyler, the Creator is an artist who has made a lot of changes to his image and sound. He began his career with internet-phenomenon collective Odd Future who defined themselves with a new sound and an aggressively anti-everything attitude. While his earlier work was fairly edgy, violent and homophobic, Tyler slammed the brakes and turned around 180 degrees to a more positive and experimental sound on Cherry Bomb, a shift that informed his next album, Flowerboy. Many saw Flowerboy as Tyler’s coming out, something he mentioned in previous songs but about which he always maintained a little mystery. In that regard, IGOR is different. It is an album about his breakup with his boyfriend, so these matters seem pretty clear.
Where Flowerboy was a little melancholic and longing, IGOR is deeply sad and angry. Tyler describes his breakup, going into factors of the toxicity of the relationship like emotional manipulation, dependence, his lover still seeing his ex-girlfriend; but he also tries to make sense of the breakup and the relationship afterwards.
Sound-wise, Tyler goes from hip-hop to neo-soul. The instrumentals are a bit tacky and lo-fi, but the campy 70s vibe does not distract from the seriousness of the matter. There are few rap parts on here as Tyler sings most of his lyrics, often pitch-shifted; the effect often makes him sound like an angry child. But Tyler isn’t alone here: multiple features accompany him, a fact that was also shrouded in mystery before IGOR’s release. The features that are confirmed to be on the album are Lil Uzi Vert on “IGOR’S THEME”, Playboi Carti on “EARFQUAKE”, Solange’s backing vocals and Slowthai’s verse on “WHAT’S GOOD”.
Igor is a beautiful album to sing along to, shouting the lyrics like a mad person while crying (in a cathartic and healthy way).
Noname – Telefone
Childhood is important to us: it builds who we are and distorts itself into a dreamlike, perfect world as soon as enough time has elapsed between it and our current point of view. So it seems like a place of refuge in times of peril. Noname gives us a situation that would warrant behaviour like this: “Me missing brother Mike, like something heavy/Me heart just wasn’t ready; I wish I was a kid again” (“Yesterday”) – Brother Mike was an important figure in the rap scene of Noname’s hometown of Chicago and a mentor of hers.
Reminiscing about your childhood in times of depression, racial discrimination, and poverty seems like an escape that is easy enough, but if your childhood was also determined by some of these factors, nostalgia creates a dead end. So the contrast between the romanticization of childhood, the faults of the present, and past trauma creates a subtle tension in this mixtape, one that the listener doesn’t always notice in the woozy, sweet, gospel-jazz-rap.
Aside from trying to make sense of her current situation in the previously discussed, more dramatic terms, Noname is also looking for love and falling into related trappings: “A casanova with catalogs of his dinner dates/Make me feel special, Jay Electro-Soul/I need a nigga to follow me to the rabbit hole/And fall in where I fall in/I’m ballin’, I’m out control” This is all part of trying to find herself, which may be the main narrative of this healing piece of music.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
In a marked departure from Bon Iver’s established style, Justin Vernon went electronic on his third release under the moniker, leaving behind most of his roots in stripped down folk. But unlike my other two picks, and unlike a record such as Kid A (which this album is often compared to), 22, A Million is never difficult, or inaccessible, or cold. Working with obscure samples, distorted instruments, and layers of digitally altered vocals, Vernon instead constructs the most deeply human and emotional album of the entire decade. Ruminations on the road behind and before the singer dissolve themselves into warm saxophone tones on opener 22 (OVER S∞∞N); gentle piano introduces you to the small-scale epic 33 “GOD”; and album closer 00000 Million could almost pass for a classic Bon Iver song were it not for the treated vocals and sampled refrains. But even when 22, A Million turns fricative, or frostily solipsistic, it is never to the album’s detriment: screaming over the abrasive drums on second track 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ only brings out the longing in Vernon’s voice, a wanderer lost in the snowstorm, desperate to find a connection. Few artists manage to change their sound so thoroughly while staying true to their work’s core, and on 22, A Million, Vernon does the trick again and again with a sly grace that makes this record my absolute favorite album of the 2010s.
Open Mike Eagle – Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
Yes, I have two rap releases about childhood and adolescence on this list, deal with it. Housing projects and their towering concrete gestalt have been a constant lyrical and literal image of hip hop, a genre often made by those who grew up in these projects or who still live there. Making it out of these brutalist reminders of your own poverty is the aim of many.
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, from its cover art and title on, stresses the connection between these buildings and their inhabitants by showing an illustration of these “Brick Body Kids” whose arms and heads are attached to the bracket shape of the housing projects.
“We live in a space that should have never existed” (“How Could Anybody Feel At Home”), crowded, perched in a ghetto neighbourhood, meticulously planned with utter ignorance (or as some might say, malice) towards those who would be living there. In this environment where the most basic necessities sometimes don’t work and shops close, a place without much hope, the children, the Brick Body Kids, still try to get along.
The chorus of “Hymnal” shows the grasps for hope:
“Sing it like a church song/Like a old-time prayer from a dead man written on a notebook/Draw with a ink pen/Like it doesn’t even matter if it go, god damn it, it’s the first time/Make it like a mistake/Sing it like a church song/Written when the shit wasn’t going right/Sing it like it don’t hurt/Like it can’t break/Like it’s this big”.
“Hymnal” tries to offer relief that used to be found in religion from someone who isn’t on board with religion anymore. One could of course also dream themselves away: “Let’s go to the projects, let’s go to the moon” (“Daydreaming in the Projects”), or spend summer evenings cruising around trying to find radio stations (“95 Radios”).
Even in all their dreadful character, the projects still matter to their inhabitants:
“They blew up my auntie’s building/Put out her great grandchildren/Who else in America/Deserves to have that feeling/Where else in America/Will they blow up yo village” (“My Auntie’s Building”).
The demolition of a project is like losing a relative. Despite all this heavy topics, this is still a beautiful (Open Mike Eagle turns out to not only be a great lyricist and rapper but also quite the singer) and even occasionally funny album: “All these discussions online is mayonnaise versus mustard/Mayonnaise people think French can’t be trusted/Mustard people think eggs is all busted” –(“Daydreaming in the Projects”).
Tom Csatari – Uncivilized
Jazz is a difficult matter in the 2010s. The directions in which it can go seem predetermined: high-brow avant-garde with almost paranoidly perfectionist tendencies and swing deficiency or equally unappealing retroism (this is of course a gross oversimplification, but I do live for drama and reductionism). Few remain balancing on the thin rope of perfection. Tom Csatari is one of them.
Inspired by acoustic guitar innovator John Fahey and his style, Csatari plays solipsistic, but warm music. You might not hear this at first, though, because he is anything but alone on this album. Up to 12 other players join him on reeds, brass, strings, percussion and bass. With this big of a band you have to balance chaos and stringency. Too much of either will irritate different groups of listeners. Yet the unisons shine in bright, warm colours like it’s nobody’s business only to diverge into labyrinthine, more free improvisatory parts. Every player has their part to play and treats each other with respect. This feels like a spontaneous jam, like people that found each other at this jazz club with a recording setup, but also like these people grew up playing around each other, a small family.
Every other harmonic moment the brass and string create together feels like the biggest victory of my life, the rhythmic intricacies of the percussions and the brass make me feel alive and the small splotches of his amazing, but shy guitar playing Csatari leaves all over the record make me feel smarter just listening to them. This album makes me happy to be alive and that’s something.
Beach House – Bloom
Beach House is quite the token indie band. If you think of the archetypal indie kid in the early 10s/late 2000s, Beach House is on their playlist of “obscure” stuff. But let’s not be bothered by this web of construction around the fanbase of this band. Beach House made a name for themselves with dream pop that relied on synthesizers and drum machines more than on the classic rock band equipment the usual 90s dream pop band had.
Bloom does, in my opinion, the best job on Beach House’s signature sounds. It layers looping synth melodies with more gliding pads and longer melodic lines, occasionally provided by Alex Scally’s guitar. Victoria Legrand sings over these beautiful, rich layers with her ethereal, but heartfelt voice and somehow manages not to drown in all of it. Even with this wall of sound approach, the songs never just float along ambiently: the choruses are bright and powerful, the build-ups constantly interesting and the melodies stick in your head for days on end.
Bloom is an album for the kind of sad day where you want to just cuddle up against something familiar, something that tells you it’s going to be ok no matter how grim things feel. I tend to leave this album with the feeling of inner warmth – and of being surprised at Beach House still doing a 90s-style hidden track in 2012.
Deafheaven – Sunbather
Some albums, you fall in love with on your first listen, whereas others only reveal themselves to you on subsequent returns. Sunbather falls into the latter category: the simultaneously lush and abrasive blend of black metal and shoegaze that Deafheaven serve up on this album, so perfectly encapsulated by the record’s warmly pink cover, confused and confounded me at first. And yet, I kept coming back, homing in on the music’s center. With every new attempt at understanding Sunbather, the album enthralled me more and more, until it finally clicked. Blending the two seemingly disparate styles brings out the best in both of them, black metal’s underlying melancholy as well as shoegaze’s inherent noisy violence. Again, it is the opening track that announces this most clearly: Dream House builds up walls of warmly distorted guitars before attacking you with blast beats and George Clarke’s shrieking vocals. Warmth and warfare are never too far apart on Sunbather which nevertheless reveals itself as a deeply human album, not shying away from using guitarist Kerry McCoy’s real-life drug addiction in one of its interludes. All of this builds to epic closer The Pecan Tree which brings all narrative and stylistic threads together and epitomizes in its winding, evolving structure one of the most adventurous, innovative and ambitious albums I have ever heard.
Björk – Vulnicura
Sometimes things don’t go the way you thought they would. Björk must have felt much the same when her relationship dissolved during the making of this album. In the booklet, the songs are supplied with captions, starting with “9 months before”, creeping closer to the end of the relationship by track 3 (“History of Touches”). Track 4 (“Black Lake”) is already captioned “2 months later”, which makes the majority of the nine-track album about the post-breakup phase.
Doubt permeates the first three tracks, with “Stonemilker” asking for orientation and respect, “Lionsong” wanting clarity during a crisis, and “History of Touches” contemplating the couple’s way so far. The first post-breakup track, “Black Milk”, portrays vulnerability; “Family” is about the sorrow and dread of breaking unity in the seemingly perfect triangle of married people and their children; “Notget” is harrowing as the promise of love that keeps lovers from death is broken. After this, the last three tracks are an attempt at searching healing.
The production and composition are truly special on this album as well. With Björk co-producing and co-writing every track, as well as arranging the strings which are so central to the sound, this is first and foremost her album. But as Björk goes, she tends to have some kind of support. So the electronic programming and occasionally production is supported by visionary deconstructed club producer Arca, who adds her signature mix of complex drum machine sputters and dark synth landscapes, and ambient artist The Haxan Cloak, who furthers the unsettling feel of the record.
The singing is usually stretched and slow, often supported by a choir, with the ominously gliding or, in the later parts, dramatically stabbing strings usually providing further support to the feeling of a death ballet the “organic” part portrays together with the voluminous synth pads, while the electronic drum parts of the instrumental glitch out and rattle, seemingly alienated from the rest of the instrumental. Not that Björk is in any way new to combining electronic and chamber music elements, but the sound of Vulnicura is unique in this dark emotional tone. Vulnicura is an amazing example of a lot of experimentation and risks in production succeeding in their mission to portray a complex of emotions.
Owen Pallett – Heartland
Many 2000s indie kids owe a lot to Owen Pallett. He busied himself with the string arrangements for Arcade Fire’s most popular albums since Funeral, as well as other artists like Grizzly Bear, The Mountain Goats, and, most surprisingly, Taylor Swift. So what does this creator of the chamber part for one of the most popular chamber pop albums of all time do when he is left to his own devices? He creates chamber pop, obviously.
But where Arcade Fire came from the guitar focus of indie music, Pallett goes all out on the orchestral parts. The strings (most prominently Pallett’s own violin playing) rise brashly, perform spiral turns, and show their identity independent of the main melody of the song. The orchestration is vital and exciting without ever being overwhelming. Pallett sings with dignified elegance but still rises to amazing falsettos when necessary.
Heartland is an album of unprecedented, complex but still beautiful character. Pallett shows the genre he’s made famous a new way to go, an open door for people after him to walk through. And Chamber Pop has succeeded in becoming more diverse in this decade, which is great because I do live for (and occassionally in) this music.
Milo – So the Flies Don’t Come
Since the late 2000s, people have stopped being impressed by abstract hip hop just being a amalgamate of a year’s worth of Merriam-Webster’s word of the day put into complex double rhymes and revealing 4 different meanings depending on how hard your genius-strained brain is able to make your imagination squint.
Milo came into this clique of thesaurus-clad rappers from internet forums, making what some might call nerdcore, riddled with references to video games and all the other stuff that nerds like. But in some rare moments, Milo (aka. Scallops Hotel, Rory Ferreira, R.A.P. Ferreira, Black Orpheus) puts in the effort to make some of the best rap of this decade.
Milo is smart, dexterous and funny in his poetry, flowing over Kenny Segal’s unquantized jazz beats with flair. So the Flies Don’t Come is a collection of poetry about the act of writing itself, about language, and about identity.
Milo himself is in a bit of a crisis about all of these things. Tired of the intellectual poseur rap he made himself, he denounces “You were used to me rapping my book list/Indeed a n***a might look bookish” (“Going No Place”) and recognizes the futility of rapping under capitalism: “We, Urban Outfitters, would like to make a t-shirt/Out of your just-born soliloquy” (“An Encyclopedia”). Language and identity flow into each other in Milo’s world:
“No one taught me the language of rap song, I was born speaking it” (“An Encyclopaedia”)/
“I can rap like my last name was ‘Blackman’” (“Souvenir”)
Milo, who, as a person with both Latin and Afro-American roots, often struggled with being seen as black, here solidifies his identity while at the same time struggling with the universal police violence against Afro-Americans. Milo manages to put out a lot of important opinions, reflects on his position, and shows a new way for abstract hip hop to come.
So that’s it. I hope everyone had fun and took home some albums to check out from this amazing decade. There are so many more albums we (or at least I) could talk about, but I guess we’ll save those for later. Look forward to another decade of whatever *tba comes up with in terms of music reviews and other content, good night.