The 2010s were an insane ride on the music front. A seismic shift in listening habits ushered in by the monumental rise of streaming platforms reshaped the industry entirely. Money was made on merchandising and touring more so than hard copy sales, and a big ol’ wave of option paralysis rattled the craniums of people like myself, as I realised despite my best efforts I will never ever be listening to enough to stay ‘tuned in’ to what’s going on at the forefront of each of the most popular genres. Rap upstaged rock early on in the eyes of the mainstream, and stayed firmly on that throne for the remainder; for better or worse spawning a dysfunctional litter of sub-genres and characters with no shared motivation beyond getting filthy rich on the internet and I mean, fair, power to you.
To save the best for last, the freedom of this new style of content distribution really brought out the peak of the weird and wonderful you wouldn’t otherwise have heard. We reached the closest thing resembling a meritocracy I can ever remember in music just by extension of everyone who wants it having a platform to utilise. I cannot tell you accurately how many albums I had in mind whilst considering the structure of this list and that’s a truly incredible thing. The 2010s spoiled us rotten with choice; they were a buffet of ideas and actualisation and everyone can eat what they damn well want.
I feel it necessary to include a forewarning that some of these write-ups will be more brief than others. I know it’s for the decade, and all of these picks deserve accreditation and dissection, but surely it goes without saying that I’m recommending them, right? I just wasn’t able to shut myself up at the top end, so sacrifices had to be made. To that point on sacrifice, a second note: one album per artist. I didn’t want my biases to run away with me. Anyway, without further stalling, there’s a lot to do so let’s get into it.
#20: Hozier – Hozier
Hozier’s debut record shines in the same corners as a Bob Dylan or Van Morrison release; his own unique introspection is so captivating regardless of what topic he’s decided to address that it warrants multiple listens just to catch the song holistically.
It’s pretty rare to hear such a clear and consistent voice from a first outing that I’ve been impressed the last five years. Listen to ‘To Be Alone’ immediately.
#19: Lorde – Melodrama
Ah, yes. The exact moment I was cemented a total pop apologist.
Melodrama is a stunning collection of brazen bangers about finding your sense of self amongst muddy circumstances. It’s a coming-of-age record to end them, that never stops delivering at the highest level with anthemic sugar-sweet instrumentation and cuttingly self-aware lyricism to boot.
#18: James Blake – James Blake
A singer-songwriter record for the new decade, 2011’s self-titled project by James Blake was a lesson in modernising the deep cut.
Clearly a producer first, Blake stacks the deck with a loving mish-mash of his influences; sharp R&B and dubstep textures are the backdrop for his light warbling vocal deliveries. A mesmerising balance of the intimate and abstract.
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#17: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
The very first verse of opener ‘Montezuma’ had me in a pocket I would not escape from. A pensive stock-take in the young life of frontman Robin Pecknold, and indicative of what’s to follow.
Commentating the late-youth crisis so many of us face, Helplessness Blues is a pertinent examining of this wildly formative time of life, and one that bolsters finding the beauty in everything around.
#16: LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
Perhaps sounding the most dated on this list is LCD Soundsystem’s 2010 full-length This Is Happening…but not for any reason it can help. T
hat’s the issue in being genre-defining: that repeat visitation doesn’t favour you now that there are 60 major releases that drink from the same cup. I’m pleased to say it’s the best of the bunch bar none in its swirling take on fun electro-pop songwriting. ‘I Can Change’ is still stellar.
#15: Snail Mail – Lush
Snail Mail’s Lindsay Jordan was eighteen years of age when Lush was released and that sent me into a spiral of existential anguish. Luckily, the content itself got me right out.
It’s a glossy collection of jaunty indie-pop music with replay value for days, and visible room to refine downstream, as Lindsay already has a fairly recognisable tone already. Beyond excited for her future.
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#14: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
Totally in the throes of the grieving process post the death of his mother Carrie, Sufjan Stevens’ seventh full-length is a dark and subtle array of gut wrenching ballads from the family home.
Staggeringly profound and often outright depressing, it’s a lot to hold. I mean none of the above as a criticism, in case that wasn’t clear, contextually there’s no other way to experience it. Death is ever-present, looming, spoiling once warm images of those you love.
#13: Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
…Like Clockwork is the cherry on top of Queens of the Stone Age’s erratically wonderful 2000’s catalogue.
A piece of work evolved in every way from the glory years, it’s the perfect meeting point for their now elevated lyricism and long-standing propensity to go ballistic. A matured rock record from the era by a shining light in the alt-rock pantheon.
#12: Drake – Take Care
Canadian rapper Drake’s second studio album was a benchmark release; inspiring a thousand clones and five hundred records that weren’t quite as good.
A mixed bag of songs sonically, but Take Care truly soars in its ability to be unapologetically vulnerable, in a scene at the time otherwise dominated by pseudo-macho bollocks (remember, we weren’t but a few feet out of the ‘bling’ era). Dig out ‘Marvin’s Room’.
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#11: Tyler, the Creator – Flower Boy
Tyler, the Creator had the strangest decade out of anyone on this list. Bursting onto the scene with eerie cut ‘Yonkers’, he seemed pigeonholed from the off to be another copy and paste horrorcore cultist who listened to the Marshall Mathers LP one too many times in his youth.
Flower Boy couldn’t be any further removed from that (well, except for ‘Who Dat Boy’ but you have to appease the day ones somehow). Instead you’ll find yourself part of an ethereal journey through precisely crafted neo-soul, curated by the tamest and most candid version of the MC so far.
#10: PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Let England Shake was a snapping departure from any stylistic PJ Harvey had played with beforehand… and it’s not exactly as if she’s known for staying put in a certain pocket.
A poetic and incisive concept piece on the scourge of war and its shaping of national identity that regrettably sounds more relevant on our side of the decade than when it was released.
#9: Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
2018’s Kanye West/Kid Cudi collaboration LP Kids See Ghosts was everything fans had hoped it was going to be for the longest time. Taking the greatest elements of the solo work of the two, they constructed an organised frenzy of aesthetics and ideas spanning the spectrum of their interests… a moodboard that’ll take you far and wide.
The disjointed and partially reversed samples constructing the beat of “4th Dimension” is your entry point if you want to try before you buy. It’s completely unhinged end-to-end and I wish it was a longer project.
#8: Bjork – Vulnicura
Björk has enjoyed some of the most interesting musical output on Earth for the last twenty-five years. Her punishing break-up effort Vulnicura sits in a rare spot amongst her celebrated discography however, just in being so without pomp and pageantry (for her usual standards, at least).
These stripped away cuts allow her emotions to breathe and be heard in their entirety, as she transitions into a new phase of her life. It’s an album of process, unglamorous by design and consistently soul-baring.
#7: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Run the Jewels 2 is a liver shot. In fact, it is several repetitive liver shots and then a stomp while you’re down for good measure.
I got into Killer Mike and El-P’s music through third track ‘Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1’, and if you’ve never heard them, but find yourself fancying some always combustible, powerful and gritty rap music then I suggest you do the same. Deep cuts like ‘Early’ manage not to get stylistically backed into a corner either, as the veteran versatility of the two shows in their ability to switch up the production and cadence of vocal delivery. Masterclass hip-hop.
#6: IDLES – Joy As An Act of Resistance
While 2017’s triumph Brutalism brought Bristolian post-punk unit IDLES to the dance, their follow up record a year later, Joy As An Act of Resistance, proved this dance was theirs now and everyone else should fuck off.
A showcase of pride and bombast, you’d only need to look as far as single ‘Danny Nedelko’ to gauge what’s going on: an outcry for unity, a call to arms to defy the seemingly crumbling world around and actually dare enjoy this life. Not that there aren’t a fair share of more scathing moments, but they say knowing is half the battle and so it’s only fair to be reminded what you’re up against. Strap in.
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#5: David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie’s final offering Blackstar, at a mere seven tracks, is one of the best of his illustrious, near-untouchable career.
A swan song of confession and lament, open as you like and fit for any decade-end list. From first hearing ‘Lazarus’ upon the news of his passing, I was moved to a level I had never been; the Starman had found a way to say goodbye that felt instantly as if nothing else would’ve done. A last act of perfection… I love this album with my whole heart. I sorely wish it wasn’t goodbye.
#4: A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from here! Thank you 4 your service!
How does this happen?? How does any act not release new music for nearing twenty years and come back with something on this scale?
The former Native Tongues unit returned to the scene (and to form) like they’d never been away, rattling your head with unmissable cuts of layered conscious hip-hop dissecting the shortcomings of the current sociopolitical climate. Do yourself a favour and spin ‘We the People’ a couple of times.
#3: Frank Ocean – Blond
Frank traverses the roads of sonic modesty on Blond, a gulf away from the more outlandish and ambitious route taken on previous adventure channel ORANGE.
He does this without giving up the power of his meditative style; in fact if anything this approach strengthens its demonstrations, improving focus on the many thematics at play in the man’s mind. I can’t even necessarily give you an in, a track that stands out above the rest here (that stage of the list, folks) so do just seek this thing out and spend some time with it. Gets better every listen.
#2: Swans – The Seer
Back in 2012, Michael Gira and co. sold live album We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head in order to finance the final studio versions of new songs featured. So with teasers in mind, the fans waited out the summer and prepared for the project known as The Seer.
What was delivered was a behemoth of a double album, two hours in length and absolutely relentless to get through. The pure chaotic energy the band are capable of hadn’t reared its grotesque head since before their hiatus, but now they were back to business in troubling you to your very soul, and still making you return for afters. Stockholm syndrome: the album. “You have arrived…”
And before we get to the number one spot, here’s are ten honourable mentions it physically pained me not to be able to include:
Racine Carree – Stromae
Boarding House Reach – Jack White
Random Access Memories – Daft Punk
Plastic Beach – Gorillaz
A Seat at the Table – Solange
The Impossible Kid – Aesop Rock
Saturation II – BROCKHAMPTON
Turn Out the Lights – Julien Baker
Wildlife – La Dispute
4:44 – Jay-Z
#1: Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.a.a.d city
Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 conceptual monolith is not only the best album of the decade for me, it’s the most important. I’m sure many a critic is going to elect To Pimp A Butterfly king and ignore this record (I don’t begrudge that), but I honestly believe that follow-up wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day without a record as audacious as good kid receiving the warm reception it did.
Exploring Lamar’s Compton upbringing and childhood group of ‘friends’ will expose you to some truly harrowing mental imagery. Sugar coating nothing, K-Dot lays it all out flat; his complicated history, how it pertains to the culture and its pitfalls, and ultimately his relationship with its telling… how it’s constructed the man he is today. Top tier narrative work and slick, inside-the-lines production will keep you captivated long after it’s all over. good kid, m.a.a.d city is a masterpiece.