The first ever recipient of a perfect ‘10’ score on this site, Annie Clark’s self-titled album saw her improve on her previous effort for a third consecutive time, also making her the first female act in 24 years to win the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. St. Vincent was not only a perfect statement of her art-house aesthetic, it also saw her venture further out into electronic territory. Her 2012 work with David Byrne (see #99 on this list) had clearly had an influence, particularly in terms of the songs’ polyrhythmical arrangements that were more complex than ever before, yet they were still anchored in recognisable rock and pop structures and, crucially, boasted by far the catchiest collection of songs she had written. Paradoxically, this had the effect of making St. Vincent the most advanced and yet the simplest record Clark has ever made.
Right from the startling irregularity of ‘Rattlesnake’, which channels some of that Talking Heads influence, we knew we were in for something truly special. St. Vincent positively fizzed with invention and flair, yet it was supremely graceful and uncluttered. For every confounding moment of spiky, tricky brilliance like the brassy ‘Digital Witness’ or the rhythmical curveballs ‘Give Me Your Loves’ and ‘Birth In Reverse’, there were moments of slow-burning majesty like ‘Prince Johnny’, with its memorably absurd yet affecting imagery, or ‘I Prefer Your Love’. Although it had a iron will to experiment, it remembered not to talk down to its audience, with enough accessibility for anybody to enjoy the party. St. Vincent is the sound of a ferociously talented, forward-thinking artist at the peak of her power, and with three albums in this list, Clark has been one of the defining musical personalities of the indie scene in the ‘10s. It’s entirely possible that she’ll be able to top this with her next effort. (EB) (LISTEN)
The beginning of each new decade sees the stars that come to define it emerge sooner rather than later, and there can be no doubt that Kendrick Lamar will be viewed as one of the key musical forces of the fractious, tension-filled ‘10s. good kid, m.A.A.d city was his third release including mixtapes, but the first to get a traditional physical release, and allowed him to make the transition from next big thing to household name virtually overnight. Lamar may have been Dr. Dre’s protégé on his Aftermath label, but no amount of manufactured hype or financial help can ever explain why an album as singularly awesome as this becomes such a sensation. good kid, m.A.A.d city struck a perfect balance between underground and mainstream, between fearless exploration and accessibility, and a star was born.
The expansive, brooding soundscapes, characterised by deep, tight bass measures, languid, elongated beats and rhythms, offered a whole new take on the traditional West Coast sound – characterised by introspection and occasionally unsure of itself, rather than by the chest-puffing and sentimentalism often associated with the scene. Lamar’s bracing lyricism and unnervingly mature control of cadence and tone for someone so young made you see his world through his eyes. He offers an unflinching analysis of his teenage years in Compton, with the dangers of gang violence an ever-present theme, but it never comes off as preachy, self-pitying or hopelessly bleak, finding redemption in the face of hardship. Voicemail recordings of members of Lamar’s family crop up at various points, reinforcing that autobiographical feel. Even more cartoonish moments like ‘Backseat Freestyle’ come out with lines like “all my life I want money and power / respect my mind or die from lead shower”. The stunning, segmented denouement ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’ was the cherry on a very tasty musical cake. (EB) (LISTEN)
There’s no doubt that Tame Impala’s Lonerism should feature highly on the list of the greatest albums of the teens. 2010 debut Innerspeaker set the precedent for the Perth outfit’s psychedelic revivalism and, a Foo Fighters support slot and an NME single of the year later, they were indie pin-ups conquering hearts one wah-wah stomp at a time. At the heart of a gradually-shifting line-up sits Kevin Parker, nu-psych king, sun-bleached sonic experimentalist and effects pedal agitator. Taking influence from the aimless, druggy drift of late-sixties rock, Parker cleverly de-bones the best of the era and re-dresses its skeleton with a chart bothering pop aesthetic, 21st century production, and contemporary themes of disconnect, isolation and depression.
It may have been the anthemic swamp-stomp of ‘Elephant’ that aroused the mass market and topped best year rankings, but it’s the complex emotional needling of ‘Mind Mischief,’ ‘Endors Toi’ and ‘Nothing That Has Happened…’ that defines the record as a modern classic. Spaced out and drenched with the idle-minded insouciance that comes with living on the most isolated city on earth, Lonerism peers at life through a Lomographic lens and finds blurred lines, imperfection and, most importantly, optimism and redemption in infectious abundance. With another album release imminent, it’s highly likely the Aussie quintet will float to the top when compiling an end of decade list – if new single ‘Let It Happen’ is anything to go by. (Lauren James) (LISTEN)
At the end of the last noughties, Kanye West’s critical and commercial stock was at its lowest point. Ridiculed after high-profile PR disasters over Taylor Swift, the ‘Fishsticks’ takedown by ‘South Park’, and the commercial flop of 808s & Heartbreak, added to personal torment following the death of his mother and being dumped by his fiancée, he could quite easily have faded away altogether. It is the mark of personal greatness that he should come back from this at all; it’s proof that Kanye will come to be regarded as an all-time pop music great that he did it with an album as spectacularly ambitious and perfectly executed as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Opener ‘Dark Fantasy’ introduces the theme of hedonistic abandon fighting with sober self-improvement, West asking himself “the plan was to drink until the pain was over / but what’s worse, the pain or the hangover?” before reeling off a dazzling list of pop culture references from the last half-century supported by a cast of 11 guest vocalists including Elton John. And this was just the start: the rapid-fire drum’n’bass breaks and brass of ‘All Of The Lights’; the Aphex Twin piano sample of ‘Blame Game’; the sheer catharsis of the Bon Iver hook-up ‘Lost In The World’; the sing-along momentum of ‘Power’… all so startlingly different, so brilliantly arranged, and all part of the same musical patchwork.
Along with Drake and Kendrick Lamar, MBDTF signalled the start of a self-doubting, analytical trend within the hip-hop mainstream that finally took it away from the tired gangsta rap paradigm that had reigned for so long. Sure, Kanye still found the time for some outrageous boasts, but it was now a part of a dichotomy that involved a great deal of self-laceration and angst. However, there is also a sense of creeping unease bubbling under the record that rarely lets itself be explicitly known, to do with the souring of the American Dream in the face of rampant inequality and the African-American experience therein. It finally surfaces on the album’s short coda ‘Who Will Survive In America?’. Kanye achieves a delicate balancing act, conflating the personal with the political, the micro with the macro, and all with an unbelievably lavish package whose cut-up and stick-together aesthetic with diverse elements was beyond the grasp of almost every other artist operating in pop.
It’s rather striking that, in this new decade in which the album as a format is more under threat from extinction than ever, that such an incontestably great full-length should be made by somebody who had always been at the cutting edge of technology. It demands to be heard as a whole piece of work, the kaleidoscopic information overload of the digitally-defined ‘10s grafted on to a vinyl-length work, one that can’t be dissected and pulled apart for its best bits. As Pitchfork summarised so neatly, MBDTF is more like There’s A Riot Goin’ On than Thriller, an album whose greatness derives from the way that it’s documenting its time, taking the temperature of Western culture, soundtracking an accelerating, fracturing and insecure present, rather than focussing on making timeless music for the ages necessarily. Even those who had previously ridiculed him had to stand back and admire it. While Kanye went on to boldly challenge his audience with its follow-up Yeezus, this is likely to remain the point at which this most divisive of artists, for once, had the whole world in his hand. (EB) (LISTEN)
Halfway through the decade, the best album is such a great distance ahead of the pack that it seems difficult to imagine that another artist could possibly overhaul it. When modern rock stars ‘get political’, it almost always ends in one of two ways: crass, simplistic ‘stick it to the man’ sloganeering, or tediously earnest ‘big music’ stadium rock. Returning in 2011 to take every other songwriter in the world to school was 41 year old Polly Jean Harvey, somebody who had done so much to help define indie music in the ‘90s, making arguably the most bone-chilling musical statement in pop music history more than a decade after her commercial peak. A sensitively framed portrait of her homeland as a nation built on bloodshed and violence, she can credibly lay claim to have made the definitive ‘war album’ – as in ‘war movie’ or ‘war novel’. Let England Shake sounded like it could have been made at any point in the last century, with almost nothing in the music that you can identify as belonging to a specific age.
The reason why Let England Shake achieved its stated aim so spectacularly was atmosphere. The ethereal sounds of the autoharp were the primary instrument for which the album was arranged, giving the record the feeling of taking place in that halfway place between sleeping and waking. But unlike previous records, the sessions were improvisational and stripped down. But the music’s skeletal framework, with an economical approach to instrumentation and production, is only half the story. Polly Jean’s voice hangs wraithlike and judgmental over these bloody, scarred, deathly quiet landscapes and sends a jolt of empathy down your spine.
The senseless, machine-like death of World War I is the theme with which many of the songs are preoccupied, or at least start from (‘On Battleship Hill’ is the most explicit, a reference to the disastrously bloody Gallipoli landings in 1915). However, contemporary references are also scattered throughout, giving Let England Shake that timeless quality associated with true greatness in music, and without which this album wouldn’t have worked as effectively. “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” goes the repeated, unresolved and deeply sarcastic kiss-off of ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, as if to drive the message home: just the same as a hundred years ago, words of diplomatic nicety are empty, and nobody’s coming to help you.
Throughout, PJ alternated between an urgent, doom-prophesying Cassandra character and a war-weary poet writing her messages to future generations. With a witchy delivery, she resignedly wails “death was everywhere / in the air and in the sounds coming off the mounds of Bolton’s Ridge / death’s anchorage” on ‘All And Everyone’, yet she can also play the messenger warning of catastrophe without coming across with the wincing holier-than-thou attitude of so many musicians. “The West’s asleep, let England shake / weighted down with silent dead,” she croons in a deeply unsettling cadence on the title track, as if she’s the vessel through which some ancient deity is speaking. Some songs deal in stark, deeply poetic imagery, some with fictional characters that PJ conjured up as composites of real-life examples from the detailed research she did before the writing process. It’s a subtle state-of-the-nation address, full of the cold, creeping dread of a world going wrong, but PJ’s beautifully understated sense of drama means that the listener has space to envisage the subject matter by themselves, avoiding the need to resort to cheap sloganeering.
Even by her own extremely high standards, Let England Shake was a work of startling singularity, unlike anything she had produced before, showing political conviction where she had for a long time dealt with matters of the heart. All her previous records had showcased her ear for arrangement, and her earliest efforts spoke suggested a more callow, unrefined anger, but this was something else altogether. It trounced the competition at the 2011 Mercury Music Prize, making PJ the first artist ever to have won that trophy twice. But more importantly, it was an intrinsically human experience, reminding us of why music exists in the first place: to make us feel, to empathise with our fellow creatures, to cry for others, not just ourselves. (EB) (LISTEN)
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