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.
Atari Teenage Riot – Is this Hyperreal?
Most reviewers criticized this album for having a dated political screed and a lack of change in their sound but honestly it doesn’t matter. A great comparison of this album is The Prodigy’s Invaders Must Die. The band always kept true to their sound, with a couple of stumbles with Always Outnumber Never Outgunned aside. They came back out guns blazing, which wont to do for groups like The Prodigy and ATR. “Activate” opens the album with an upgrade to their electropunk sound, but only slightly. Adding CX Kidtronik to the band brought anew kick into the system, and as far as his opening statement on racism and Barack Obama on “Re-Arrange Your Synapes”. Other songs of note are “Black Flags” and “Digital Decay”.
Das Racist – Relax
I don’t even…just get on this. Heems and Kool A.D. are insane on the wordplay ( and that’s not to say anything of El-P’s bars on Shut Up, Man) and their references make Childish Gambino sound like a punk (sorry Donald, stick to funny). Oh, and “Punjabji Song’ is reminiscent of Punjabi MC on Jay-Z’s “Beware the Boys” but this song puts a flag on that then drops 16 weed-filled deuces on it.
DJ Shadow – The Less You Know
OK, I have to finally admit one of my greatest sins: Up until recently, I’ve never had a good pair of headphones. I’ve always rocked the cheap Sony wrap-around blue sports one – it was the only one that’d survive my clumsiness – and now that I have these massive Skullcandy ones with the ultra bass, I’ve heard songs in completely new ways. I’m still not a snooty audiophile (I’m too lazy to convert to lossless formats) but…oh, the drums..the drums on a Shadow song on them.
Truth be told, The Outsider sucked. Only Phonte on “Backstage Girl” and “Artifact” saved that album for me. But from track one on The Less You Know… Shadow established that his scratching is back. The follow-up song”Border Crossing” sound like a poorly made 90s action movie version of “Artifact” (actually, check out “HYPERPOWER” from NIN’s Year Zero if you want a better version of this song). The “Stay the Course” team-up of Posdnuos and Talib Kweli is pretty solid; Kweli especially got to me seeing as he’s been off my audio radar for a minute. It’s amusing that Shadow dropped an emphasis on the lull in the next three songs by putting up a song titled “Tedium”. The slowed down vocals and acoustic guitar on “Enemy Lines” gives the album an Entroducing pick-me-up before the break beats of “Going Nowhere” rolls in. that, along with “Run for Your Life” should get any Shadow fan at attention. Sadly, on “Scale It Back” Yukimi Nagano does her first lackluster performance on a song she’s featured on.
Now, let’s get to the singles. “Def Surrounds Us” renewed my faith in Shadow with his effective use of vocal samples, pounding drum beats, a sprinkle of hyphy and dubstep, and pianos and apocalyptic choir singing. “I’ve Been Trying” was in the first lull I mentioned, so I didn’t realize it was a single. Oh, back the topic of new headphones: listen to the other single “I Gotta Rokk” on them. Trust me on this.
Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne
It’ s a little late to review this album without looking like a punk against ones like the fake Ghostface’s review. Instead, I’m just concentrating on the singers. First off, Frank Ocean dominates on his two songs; even if “Made in America” was one of the lesser cuts on WtH, he still delivers on it (and don’t get me started on his hook on my new banger “No Church in the Wild”). Truth be told, the only other ones of note is Elly Jackson of La Roux on “That’s My Bitch” and The-Dream on “No Church…”; I didn’t know that the unintelligible bridge on the “That’s My Bitch” was Bon Iver, nor did I really care. As for Beyonce on “Lift Off’, the song was pretty bad on its own, and she didn’t really help to bring it back. Mr. Hudson’s voice on “Why I Love You” reminds me of how the last time he brought something good to an album is still 808s & Heartbreaks. Oh, and Swizz Beatz needs to stop putting his “talking while straining through a bowel movement” voice all over a track.
Kasabian – Velociraptor!
Halfway through, I stopped listening it and went back to West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum.
Ladytron – Gravity the Seducer
It’s interesting to see the career trajectory of these electro-Liverpudlians, not just in their sound but in their whole look. The aesthetic in their music videos and photos from each album mirrors the songs of the album attached to them. In this album’s case, there is this a baroque, upper-class sound far different from the utilitarian beats in 604 or the cold grinding pulses from Witching Hour. There are some glimpses of Velocifero in “Melting Ice”. Songs like “Altitude Blues” and “White Gold” reinforce an 80s sci-fi soundtrack vibe (even the album art is reminiscent of the opening scene from Blade Runner). One of the biggest issues with the album is that there are too many songs that sound alike; “Ace of Hz”, “Mirage”, and “Aces High (which is just a boring instrumental of “Ace of Hz”) are the culprits of this. Overall, this is not as good as album as the previous one.
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
It took one song from her Actor album to really make me into a stan for Ms. Annie Clark (go listen to “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood. The title is deceiving.). “Cruel” lets her gets it starting with her great vocals (it kind of reminded me of Feist) on the end of her verses. Then she reminds you “Oh yeah, I still got the grind” on “Cheerleader”. The eponymous track has an 80s synth thing going on until it hits you with her guitar/vocal one-two punch. The album fades out a bit until “Hysterical Strength” which reclaimed my attention with its driving drums and piano.
Watch the Throne is already in my library – hearing Kanye beat out Jay-Z on this (I think that’s intentional, but on the other hand, Jay’s skills are waning) is good enough to make it a keeper. DJ Shadow and St. Vincent stay as well. I can’t say no to Shadow’s masterful sampling/mixing and Annie Clark’s singing/rocking.
Ladytron might grow on me like Velocifero did. We’ll see.
ATR and Kasabian
It’s another edition of Music OD, and this time instead of waiting a few months, I’m dropping this in just one. Let’s see what I’ve blasting from my headphones this month:
Atmosphere – The Family Sign: I must say, the opening two tracks are suicide-level depressing. The piano and guitar work (the work of Erick Anderson and Nate Collins, respectively) is on point throughout though, especially on “Became” which connects to Slug’s wintry narrative. His flow on that song is on par with “Lovelife” from God Loves Ugly. By the time acoustic guitar on “Who I’ll Never Be” comes up, it becomes apparent that the solo guitar on “Guarantees” from the previous album has stepped up quite a bit. Just keep to those types of songs on this one; the others sound like failed Ant beats or feckless indie rock. Read the rest of this entry