Around ten years ago at a bar in the Village a few hours before we rang in 2010, I had a spirited debate about what were the best albums of the decade that had passed. I still maintain on some (Discovery, Demon Days, Stankonia) while have forgotten others. As I’m reaching that point once again, I’m taking stock of the albums that have captured me in the last ten years.
I typically put them out in no particular order, but it felt right to put them in the order where they meant the most.
2018 – Mitski – Be the Cowboy
There’s more to Mitski’s latest album than fitting it into critics’ tired description of the sad girl breaking down over an electric guitar. On this one, the songs come from a blend of anecdotes and allegory. She pulls away from the curtain of these lives, constructed from songs like “Washing Machine Heart” and “Me and My Husband,” and allows you to look into for a fleeting moment. Is there still that tinge of melancholy that is part of her style? Of course, her lyrics very much keep that part in check. But the range of sound makes it deeper.
Favorite Song: The best way to describe the juxtaposition of despair and musicality in Be the Cowboy is in “Nobody”. Mitski cleverly mixes her desperation from solitude with a catchy indie-pop hook and it works.
2017 – Arca – Arca
This is what happens when you make an abstract Venezuelan beatmaker become BFFs with Bjork- you end up with something defenseless and cacophonous, brave yet jarring. Ghersi’s voice is arguably the most important part of this album, as it reveals her Latinx identity, using the folk song “Caballo Viejo” on “Reverie”, releasing a blossoming hurt in her voice mixed within the sweeping distortion. The distinctive marks of Ghersi’s industrial brooding remain locked in a melody of her own design, and somehow this strange monstrosity works.
Favorite Song: “Desafio” is the odd mutant out in the album. While the rest of the album is this sinewy beast, this starts with an air raid horn and Europop sensibilities. It’s her most accessible song to date, despite having lyrics that literally translate to throat slitting and euphemisms of orgasms.
2013 – Disclosure – Settle
Electronic music is in a weird place now that it’s in a more recognized place. That’s why it’s refreshing to find two brothers from Surrey take a modern spin on house music. Settle’s influences, ranging from deep house, synthpop, and UK garage, create a high-energy trip that harkens back to the 90s house beats I grew up on with flourishes and features that make the songs sound like they are a uniquely 2010s creation.
Favorite Song: “When A Fire Starts To Burn” chops up a preacher testifying and blends it with the thumps of deep house into a highly danceable banger. As the intro song for an album, it definitely let’s you know what you’re getting into really fast.
2012 – Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Years before Killer Mike became a Bernie Sanders stan or released a Netflix show, he was an underground virtuoso on his mixtapes. It was this album that served as a prequel of sorts, a prototype of what would become of his career in the 2010s. El-P’s synth-heavy beats served as the bedrock of Mike’s fiercely political lyrics. He
Favorite Song: “Untitled” comes in like Southern freestyle and becomes this dark meditation into Mike’s worry on his legacy, but it ends with a defiant punch at authority. That, with El-P’s production and tribal drumming in the back, bring out this almost-sinister track.
2015 – Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
I have a serious issue with “woke” rap, which is really difficult to come to terms with living in a Black Lives Matter era. What saves Kendrick from the incredibly tired cliches of many 2010 conscious rappers is that TPAB weaves a clever mosaic of what it means to be a black American. Each song serves as a piece of the musical and racial history they have struggled, and Lamar (with the help of an amazing cast of features) pulls it all together into this pseudo-concept album that is not overbearing. Even when it veers towards protest rap, you still remember that it has the DNA of West Coast hip-hop. The tinges of jazz give TPAB a sound that seals its “instant classic” label.
Favorite Song: The parable in “How Much A Dollar Cost” is a powerful Kendrick narrative. It’s haunting, and you know that the person, refusing to be charitable to the divine, will end in heavenly ruin, but it’s still strong words nonetheless. The Ronald Isley outro is killer, too.
2016 – David Bowie – Blackstar
Can anyone listen to this album without the feeling that Bowie is telling you goodbye? It’s almost impossible on this one, and once again he reimagined himself for this album. This time it was of the artist in reflection, staring at what he’s created before it ends. Songs like “Tis A Pity She’s A Whore” and “Dollar Days” both recall his history while cryptically signal his end. The album isn’t dark, but one that rekindles your admiration for Bowie.
Favorite Song: The final song of his career, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is a swan song, but the reason it’s good is that he’s cleverly telling us that he’s walking away, taking some of his secrets with him. Like any good rock star, they have to take the mystique with them.
2011 -Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials
There are countless instances of indie-pop that came after this album but Florence Welch served as a standard-bearer with this one. Her distinctive vulnerability in lyrics is amplified in the baroque and bombastic (“Shake It Out”, “What The Water Gave Me”). On Ceremonials, Welch is a hopeless romantic with a booming voice that never stops howling for that lost feeling of love. And there’s no shame in diving deep into that spiral along with her.
Favorite Song: Florence Welch has made her share of hangover songs, with “Shake It Out” being one of them. But this one is somewhere between a celebration and a call for help on those 3 AM nights after way too many drinks. She’s reminding you about those dives into drunken abandon, but just maybe there’s a way out.
2014 – Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Fast-forward two years after Mike and El dropped not one, but two gritty, grimy collaborations that attracted a sizable amount of buzz, and they released a follow-up to RTJ1 that was unrelenting, grimy, and witty as hell. The bars Killer Mike and El-P trade-off on songs like “Close Your Eyes(And Count To Fuck)” and “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” take no prisoners and slap the everliving crap out of you over tried-and-true El Producto dystopia-scratch beats. The duo produced a brick to your face that has you asking for more, and miles from Def Jux and Pledge Allegiance To The Grind.
Favorite Song: “Blockbuster Night Part 1” is an introduction, to the normies as well as the hip-hop heads, to the assault they cleverly hide behind wordplay and fuzzed-out aggression of El-P’s beats and synths. It punches you in the gut, and you smile before you want more.
2010 – Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
To take a bit of a phrase from comics writer Kieron Gillen and fuss with it, we all live in the shadow of MBDTF. Regardless of whether you are a Kanye stan or if you vilify him for the myriad faults he’s accumulated over the years, this album is epic, as badly as the word’s been overused. West takes the grandiosity of production and stretches it to what could be the closest thing to a hip-hop prog album readily available for the mainstream. His beats and words spill out the excess of his life to the maximum, and artists have been pouring it into their musical DNA throughout the decade (and perhaps more).
Favorite Song: It’s hard to choose a favorite from this album. His enormity and vulnerability seemed to have hit me at all points, and it eventually became a three-way tie between “POWER”, “Runaway”, and ‘All Of The Lights”. For personal reasons “Runaway” edged out, but from an objective POV, the song bangs due to how that simple piano intro can become an anthem for break-ups, arrogance, and insecurity all balled-up into genius.
The Tenth Spot
Now the last one should be reserved for the best album of 2019, which I’ve kind of decided at this point but you’ll see in another post. When it comes down to it, I’ve always had more of a soft spot for Gorillaz, so Plastic Beach takes the spot.
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
There was no way beat the alt-pop perfection of Demon Days from last decade. This time around, they stayed on the wave with some added guests that really popped. We got De La Soul once again, but also Snoop Dogg and the pre-Yasiin Bey Mos Def. Newcomer Little Dragon was an outstanding standout while legends Bobby Womack and Lou Reed provided the foundation for an ambitious concept album only Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett could devise.
Favorite Song: The intro to “Empire Ants” lulls you into a summer beach, Albarn singing you out of your comfort zone right as Yukmi Nagano pulls you into a vulnerable melody of broken machines.