The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Albums of the 2010s

030. IDLES – Joy As An Act Of Resistance (Partisan) (2018)

Channelling emotion and beauty as well as anger and intelligence, IDLES’ second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance is one of the finest punk albums in recent memory. Released only 18 months after their head-turning debut Brutalism, is a towering, defiant statement against toxic masculinity, the closed-minded, and those that misuse and abuse their power. Intense, rabid, and with just enough ironic humour to aid digestion, Joy As An Act Of Resistance refines IDLES’ social-justice-by-brute-force strategy and clarifies their vision. And there are plenty of absolute bangers to boot. (LM) (LISTEN)

029. FKA twigs – LP1 (Young Turks) (2014)

Tahliah Barnett, one of the most distinctive new pop stars of decade, 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. (LISTEN)

028. James Blake – James Blake (ATLAS / A&M / Polydor) (2011)

James Blake has influenced the sound of much modern pop with his deconstructed, ultra-minimalist and intensely intimate take on electronic music, re-casting it as something deeply emotional rather than hedonistic. Following a series of well received EPs, the 2011 debut by “the crown prince of the quiet revolution” (Clash magazine) was one of the most critically anticipated records in recent memory. However, it didn’t entirely unite people in praise, with many criticising a complete lack of accessibility. Even covers of modern pop records like Feist’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ were subsumed into a post-dubstep twilight where silence and space was valued highly. Blake’s nakedly human vocals were the star of the show, the music sounding reverent and cautious not intrude upon his privacy. Even this proudly arty publication hated it at first, but given a great deal of time its unique qualities eventually clicked. Its slightly more commercial successor Overgrown surprisingly won the 2013 Mercury Music Prize, but for us it’s the gossamer-thin atmospherics of the debut that is the more rewarding listen, and the one that made him arguably the single most influential artist of the decade. (LISTEN)

027. Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar / 4AD) (2011)

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, 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. (LISTEN)

026. Kanye West – Yeezus (Def Jam) (2013)

And so to the most divisive musical character of the ‘10s, with the first of two ground-breaking albums of his in our countdown. “West was my slave name; ‘Yeezus’ is my god name,” Kanye said by way of explaining the album’s title. By now, he’d earned himself the artistic freedom to do something totally off the wall – and furthermore, that’s what everybody expected of him. Yeezus was no more and no less than the most gloriously off-the-chart musical statement of the decade so far: full of abrasive, violent synth sounds and harsh beats underscoring the lyrical themes of bravado and paranoia delivered via heartbroken AutoTune and rapid-fire flows.

The line between Kanye’s self-belief and self-delusion was thinner than ever, and listening to him waver on either side was totally compelling: if he is a god, he makes it sound bloody stressful. With ten songs condensed into an ultra-lean 40 minutes, it was also a very different kind of Kanye experience. ‘Blood On The Leaves’, a harrowing depiction of divorce set to a cut-up sample of Nina Simone’s cover of ‘Strange Fruit’, was the most spellbinding moment, but every track, from the dazzling Daft Punk-produced ‘On Sight’, attack drums of ‘Black Skinhead’ and pop weirdness of ‘Bound 2’, hit great heights. Yeezus wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it sure had everybody offering an opinion. (LISTEN)

025. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (Merge) (2010)

When bands catch a dose of ‘the big music’, they usually aim for the stadium-sized atmospherics of U2 and Coldplay but forget to bring any of their own personality to the mix. By 2010, people had come to expect ‘big music’ from Arcade Fire, but the Canadian six-piece weren’t about to settle into a crowd-pleasing routine of radio singles and touring, choosing to continue to use the platform of their fame to challenge their audience rather than merely satisfy it. They ended up crafting the second masterpiece of their career with The Suburbs. It took the sense of personal apocalypse that characterised their 2004 debut Funeral and turned it outwards, communicating their message through earthy, complex arrangements that felt like an update of Sonic Youth’s iconic Daydream Nation for the millennial generation. The band effortlessly fused personal themes with political, social and economic ones and projecting onto the biggest canvas imaginable. But that subject matter didn’t weigh down the album, instead hovering over and among it like a fine mist.

The Suburbs was received spectacularly well, with many critics breathlessly comparing it to Radiohead’s dystopian masterpiece OK Computer in terms of its scale, construction and complexity. A sense of creeping dread about the future percolated through every moment, about how families, communities and cultural traditions are eroded in slow-motion through the social atomisation caused by rapacious capitalism and technological progress. On ‘Suburban War’ and ‘City With No Children’, that sense of massive, inhuman odds stacked against the little guy is most stark, but they were capable of great empathy on the title track and the two-parted tracks ‘Half Light’ and ‘Sprawl’, aided by Win Butler’s heartfelt vocals. Paradoxically, it seems desperate to escape the sense of all-encompassing unease that characterises it so beautifully, yet not wanting to leave it all behind. Amongst the loss of innocence and striving for certainty in an ever-changing world, The Suburbs continually asks where hope lies, and doesn’t necessarily come back with answers you want to hear. (LISTEN)

024. David Bowie – Blackstar (ISO / Columbia) (2016)

Released just three days before his death from liver cancer in January 2016, which came as a shock to the world, it was the fearless and peerless brilliance of Blackstar that made the loss of David Bowie even more visceral for so many. The moving video for the album’s second single ‘Lazarus’, in particular, took on even greater meaning after his passing. But, in typical Bowie style, it meant that there seemed to be a sense of perfect theatrical timing about the whole thing – Blackstar had to have been intended as his parting gift to the world, right?

While it will always be associated with grief in the public consciousness, taken on its own musical terms Blackstar was an astonishing artistic triumph, with a man pushing into his seventies still intent on using his 25th album to challenge his audience. Created in league with New York jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin as his bandleader, the record was centred around textural randomness that saw him stray further from ‘pop’ than he had at any other point in his lengthy career, even 1994’s challenging 1.Outside. Keeping up his life-long intention of re-inventing himself and breaking new ground right to the end, Blackstar was the most perfect valediction for Bowie’s influential life that could have been imagined. (LISTEN)

023. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City (XL) (2013)

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. (LISTEN)

022. Jamie xx – In Colour (Young Turks) (2015)

Created from fragments recorded on his laptop over more than half a decade of touring with The xx, In Colour was not some niche release designed for hipsters and musos; rather, it presented an accessible, all-encompassing vision for a future of inventive, credible British dance music free from Calvin Harris. Cutting out all the tyrannies of fashion and elitism that have attached themselves to dance over the years, Jamie Smith spoke to the original, egalitarian vision of the dancefloor that dated back to the introduction of rave. Smith did two things simultaneously with In Colour, which every truly great solo album should. Firstly, it told us more about his passions, for indulging in obscurantism and crate-digging while fusing it to a template familiar to fans of The xx; secondly, it pointed a way forward for the genre. Armed primarily with his trusty sampler and array of beats, Smith’s sense of economy was once again the key to success. An enthralling kaleidoscope of dubstep, minimalist techno, house, jungle, hip-hop and all manner of other sub-genres, In Colour was like a curated beginner’s guide to 25 years of British dance music, with an unspoken clue as to where the next 25 might take us. (LISTEN)

021. Low – Double Negative (Sub Pop) (2018)

Are artists even allowed to release an album that’s not at least somewhat politically and/or socially conscious in 2018? When living seems like a never-ending barrage of bad news and the world is in multiple grandiose crises all at once, most of which don’t bend to quick solutions as much as they do to resignation and apathy. Quite amazingly, slowcore veterans Low, a full 25 years and a dozen albums into their career, have managed to conjure up an artistic statement that doesn’t resort to unearned, desperate, confused sloganeering, rather choosing to imbue the entire aesthetic of Double Negative with all the indecision, confusion, and creeping dread that accompanies the attempt to follow the news cycle these last few years.

Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, Steve Garrington and producer BJ Burton (previous work: Bon Iver’s 22, A Million), acknowledge the increasingly dystopian nature of reality with barely anything other than sound design – prolonged drones, shuffles and skips, granular sound textures, low, shuddering frequencies that continuously threaten to swallow the entire song whole. It’s a slow, borderline ambient album, a sonic trip designed to be taken alone, in the dark. Double Negative offers no answers, only the occasional moment where the dark drones break and out of the cracks flows even more confusion and uncertainty. The music is utterly unique, and the humanistic statement underneath as poignant as the conclusion is depressing. (LISTEN)

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