Annie Clark made the great leap forwards that all truly great artists execute at the start of the new decade with Strange Mercy. She had already built a solid platform by way of two accomplished predecessors (2007’s Marry Me and 2009’s Actor), but this was something else. Clark displayed a complex, shifting femininity with this lean collection of songs, coming off as seductive and elegant and yet darkly menacing often within the same lyric: there was anger, hysteria and humour beneath the shiny, glass-like surface of the performance. Strange Mercy’s music was inspired in equal parts by post-punk, Talking Heads-style polyrhythms and the confessional open spaces of Patti Smith. Along with her American contemporaries, it was one of those rare instances that pop makes a bid to be considered as high art – or should that be the other way round? – and consequently it didn’t go over anybody’s head. (EB) (LISTEN)
The trajectory of Drizzy’s career went upwards even more steeply with his third album Nothing Was The Same. British audiences sometimes have difficulty comprehending just what a big deal he is in America, so let’s throw a few figures in here: this shifted 1.6 million copies in the US to date, making it one of the top sellers of the ‘10s so far. One mixtape-disguised-as-an-album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late followed via surprise release in 2015 and sold half a million in four days – that’s how massive Drake is. But he’s an innovator as well as a unit-shifter, and this was the sound of an artist working harder than ever before, even more focussed on the prize. Propelled by the show-stopping single ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’, its landscapes were stretched and warped, giving him more space for his most personal statement yet. Drake’s approach has had a profound effect upon the evolution of hip-hop since he landed – indeed, nothing has been the same since – and we wouldn’t bet against him finishing out the decade as the artist with the most albums in our list. Just like he throws down on ‘Tuscan Leather’, reversing his detractors’ criticisms: “Just give it time, we’ll see who’s still around a decade from now.” (EB) (LISTEN)
A couple of minutes in, you just got the feeling Steven Ellison had been building up to this his whole life. Great as Cosmogramma was, it didn’t quite have the all-encompassing theme of this one. I mean, you can’t get more serious than death itself, right? But as well as being surprisingly playful, You’re Dead! (note the exclamation point) seemed to break out of the language of pop music altogether, and into the territory of free jazz. Licks of fusion guitar, blindingly fast jazz breaks, scattershot rapping, the extraordinary guest spots… …there’s absolutely no point in trying to communicate every joyous instant on this album. What’s so extraordinary is that, by cleverly assembling the hundreds of micro-samples and audio snippets into such a bewildering kaleidoscope of an album, Ellison manages to communicate so much to us about ourselves, about the nature and meaning of life, death and beyond, without actually saying much at all. Out of the chaos looms a singular message – the end of life is nothing to be afraid of. You’re Dead! is the sort of career-defining moment artists usually dine out on forever. (EB) (LISTEN)
Having dazzled the world with their smart, preppy interpretations of Afrobeat and world music set to tight, angular indie, Vampire Weekend realised they had to move on for their third album. They kept their Strokes-does-Graceland core style but decided to play around in the studio and build in even more influences from Americana, alt-folk and arena rock. This produced an absolute goldrush on Modern Vampires Of The City, with subtle beauties like ‘Obvious Bicycle’ and ‘Hannah Hunt’ rubbing shoulders with the gibberingly fast ‘Diane Young’ and pop-tastic ‘Unbelievers’ and ‘Ya Hey’. However, Ezra Koenig’s sweet vocals always offered you a way back in if you got lost. MVOTC was ferociously intelligent, but never crossed the line into pretension, carefully arranging their influences like a shrine around their inherent pop sensibilities to ensure they never steal focus. In developing their sound in this way, they pulled off one of the most cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed evolutions in indie music in living memory. Seriously, so many groups come unstuck at this stage in their career, but Vampire Weekend made it look like the easiest thing in the world. (EB) (LISTEN)
Justin Vernon made one of the word-of-mouth success stories of the noughties, with the heartbroken isolation and desolation of 2007’s self-recorded For Emma, Forever Ago taking the best part of two years to make a dent in the charts. It led to masses of critical adulation and close collaborations with the likes of Kanye West. For his second effort (so good, he self-titled it twice!), Vernon decided to collaborate, opening up to others rather than shutting them out, and gently revolutionising and expanding that spectral trademark sound of his into something more sumptuously musical than before. This allowed him to be much more subtle and impressionistic on the likes of ‘Holocene’ and ‘Beth/Rest’, but again, it was Vernon’s voice stealing the show, the impeccably beautiful focal point for the music. Despite that unmistakable high register, he sounded so earth-bound and human, reminding the listener at once of the passion of soul and the ruggedness of folk. How he develops this sound next is anyone’s guess – but could it possibly be as good as this? (EB) (LISTEN)
There’s been barely anything as life-affirmingly, air-punchingly fun as Tourist History released in the half a decade since its release. Clocking in at just over half an hour, Two Door Cinema Club announced their arrival with one of the sharpest, catchiest collections that indie music has ever known, demonstrating that commercial appeal doesn’t necessitate a lapse in ethics. They mixed the angularity and intelligence of prime Bloc Party with a simple pop sensibility and bold, shiny production. This gave the likes of ‘Undercover Martyn’ and ‘What You Know’ an almost hypnotic quality, ruthless pop missiles aimed directly at the dancefloor. Alex Trimble’s shy, almost twee attitude behind the mic and crystal-clear singing voice on the likes of ‘Do You Want It All?’ was a refreshing change from swaggering laddism that was defining most of the lumpen British indie at the time, and it instantly won over the hearts and minds of every indie kid in the land. Tourist History made them massive, remaining in the public consciousness for years (it achieved its chart peak position of #24 sixty-two weeks after its release), and they maintained their impressive form with follow-up Beacon in 2012. (EB) (LISTEN)
Tahliah Barnett, the most distinctive new pop star of decade so far, learned her trade as a back-up dancer in music videos for years (referenced in ‘Video Girl’, obvs), but the functionally titled LP1 was her chance to steal the limelight as FKA twigs. She didn’t rely on vocal power in the same way that the increasingly bland kind of post-Adele diva does – her high-end vocals were breathy but acrobatic, flitting from vulnerability to assertiveness in the blink of an eye, creating a kind of audio cocoon that you wanted to just curl up in and lie forever. Her almost immaterial presence in the music is enough to lure you the listener into pretty challenging territory, influenced by 20 years of transatlantic electronic music from Massive Attack to Purity Ring. Chains of brittle, snapping beats, airy chiptune synths and bleeps were fashioned into hyperreal soundscapes that reflected her sense of longing, passion and dread, also seen in the disconcerting artwork. Barnett had help from a number of high-profile producers – Arca, Clams Casino, Dev Hynes and Paul Epworth to name but a few – but the musical vision of LP1 was entirely her own. Pointing to an exciting, sophisticated potential future for pop, its unexpected success was one of the most heartening things to happen to music in recent memory. (EB) (LISTEN)
Having started life as an (almost) regular band with 2008’s Beat Pyramid, one of the most wilfully awkward albums that could conceivably be housed under the umbrella term of ‘indie’, These New Puritans went totally off the grid for its follow-up. Jack Barnett, one of the most prodigiously talented young arrangers in music, described Hidden as “dancehall meets Steve Reich”, but no amount of labelling can describe how truly special and unique the record is. Sitting in under-explored territory beyond prog rock, indie and hip-hop, Barnett brought together all manner of disparate elements, evolving a series of compositions initially intended for the bassoon. Subsonic bass beats, six foot drums, Foley recording techniques (the melon covered in crackers struck by a hammer to simulate a human skull being smashed on ‘Attack Music’ became legendary), a 13 piece orchestra and children’s choir all went into Hidden: the result was a suite of eleven songs that alternated between being implacably hostile and deeply moving. (EB) (LISTEN)
Having made the great leap forwards with the expanded horizons of Total Life Forever, Foals went for the jugular on their third album. Holy Fire saw Phillippakis and co. write their most accessible material to date while retaining the lush textures of its predecessor. ‘My Number’ was a bona fide indie-pop classic, but they also collided the grandiosity of TLF with some glacially calm moments of intimacy – the steel drum inflections of ‘Black Milk & Spiders’, the grungey chops of ‘Inhaler’, the slowly building crescendo of ‘Providence’ – it all felt like the culmination of a career’s work, so perfectly conceived and executed that it became hard to see how they can add or subtract from this sound to make it better. Holy Fire allowed Foals to step up to the big leagues, putting them in the frame for headliner status at Britain’s major festivals in the near future with a sound that’s capable of filling the biggest spaces. As we said when we awarded it Album of the Year, it’s a resounding victory for reserve, modesty and intelligence in a British indie scene increasingly lacking in all three. (EB) (LISTEN)
Though they were out of the game for a long time – eight years separated Random Access Memories from the lame fizzle of 2005’s Human After All – Daft Punk’s extended absence only served to heighten public interest and anticipation in the duo. When they eventually did return, powered by the humungous dancefloor smash ‘Get Lucky’, which hit commercial peaks that even the biggest bands only dream about, Random Access Memories had so much riding on it that some expected it to be the next great revolution in dance music. It wasn’t – but then again, it didn’t try to do so. Instead, Thomas Bangalter and Guy de Homem-Christo penned an extended musical love letter to their influences and childhood musical favourites. It never really explodes into the regular 4/4 thump that characterised so much of their back catalogue: rather, tracks like ‘Doin’ It Right’, ‘Give Life Back To Music’ and ‘Lose Yourself To Dance’ were exercises in studied restraint and relaxed cool. When they did pull out the stops, on ‘Giorgio By Moroder’ and ‘Contact’, it was precision-tooled to perfection. Random Access Memories was a chilled-out delight, and a critical and commercial success to boot. (EB) (LISTEN)
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