Apparently you’ve got to write a personal note at the start of these things, but I can’t really think of anything less interesting that reading about the personal notes of a music journalist and their boring lives, so let’s keep it brief. 2010s, started them as a kid, am sort of less of one now, but anyway, I did get to send an email to Japan from a bus on the Faroe Islands, that might have impressed me when I was in school. Outside of myself, not a great decade to be honest, as we’re ending them with fewer cultural outlets than ever before but more apps that’ll bring your food to you when you’re too lazy to actually go and get it yourself, which doesn’t say much for how we’ll developed over the past ten years. There was some cool music though. I didn’t really actually finalise what was going to be on this list until I started writing it, so I probably forgot a lot, but anyway here’s some sketched out impressions of the records I liked this decade.
Grimes – ‘Art Angels’ (2015)
Unfortunately, we find ourselves in the launch period of a Grimes album cycle at present, which means lots of debating about why Azealia Banks just sat in that house for a week anyway and websites cynically pretending to not understand jokes for clicks. But though not as messy as the build-up to Miss Anthropocene or whatever she’s currently cooking, it’s worth remembering the lead-up to Art Angels was also a train wreck of tracks being dropped and added, confusing statements and weird beefs. And she still delivered the best avant garde pop album of the decade. Even five years later, it still sounds like something no-one’s been able to catch up to, a chaos splatter of neon, futuristic art-pop, the musical equivalent of walking down a street with a new adventure blaring at you from every billboard. It’s also just packed with hits: Kill Vs Maim, California, Flesh Without Blood and Realiti, still probably her best song. So even if there’s another year of headlines about Elon Musk or whatever anime she’s currently watching via Tik Tok clips, it’s worth keeping faith with Claire Boucher – she tends to deliver when it matters.
Kendrick Lamar – ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ (2015)
It’s testament to the imperial phase Lamar has been in for this decade that if his Untitled Unmastered had come out without the context of its more celebrated cousins, it might well have been seen as one of the best albums of its era. In reality though, despite the quality of it, good kid, m.A.A.d city and DAMN, it’s gotta be To Pimp A Butterfly. The musical equivalent of one of those 700-page epic novels that leaves you floored when you finish it, it’s packed with moments that punch through like a train, from Wesley’s Theory, How Much A Dollar Cost to Alright and The Blacker The Berry (and the journey between those songs is a trip through a forest of spectacular rapping and magically constructed jazz, classic R’n’B and more. Its power is obvious, even just from the fact that its influence flowed back into the political world it was influenced by, with the song becoming an anthem at Black Lives Matter marches. If anything goes into the book of human history as great art from this era, this album deserves to.
Sky Ferreira – ‘Night Time, My Time’ (2013)
In terms of time spent listening to, this might close to the top of my list for the 2010s. At the start of the decade, it was kinda vague who Sky Ferreira was – a singer/model/IT girl (she’d probably have been called an influencer a half decade later) with a series of botched attempts at releasing a record and a handful of cheesy pop songs written by producers stuck in 2005. That she made it out of that pretty prison is testament to her personality and drive, and the album that eventually arrived, Night Time, My Time, is a testament to her talent. Opening with Boys, a pop song fed through a wall of scuzz that repurposed and shredded a song from her teeny-pop era, Night Time, My Time is a record that no-one really expected to come from its source, and probably caused the biggest incident of furious muttering in the Capitol Records boardroom since Napster. It’s just a great, immersive record, a mix of pop, rock, shoegaze and blends of all three, all held together in a musical style that’s kinda unique to her. She didn’t release a thing for years after (until this year, when another dramatic pivot, the doomy single Downhill Lullaby emerged), which means that it’s still hard to pin down and get a sense of who Sky Ferreira really is. But Night Time, My Time guarantees her an audience whenever she returns.
EMA – ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’ (2011)
“You were a goth in high school, you cut and fucked your arms up, you always talked about it, they said you’d never do it” – Erika M Anderson is a brutally powerful and thoughtful writer, which she’s proved on topics like future dread (The Future’s Void) and America’s burnt-out abandoned middle zones (Exile In The Outer Ring). Her breakout album Past Life Martyred Saints is still probably the one that marks her out most however. The Future’s Void looked out into cyberspace, but PLMS is intensely personal, the dramas, fears and horrors of people small enough for us to recognise ourselves and our lives in them. Through music that flickers between soft and thin to hard and harsh, lines flash out at you like more articulate versions of your own fears – “I looked on the computer, it just was an emptiness, made me want to throw up on the spot”. You don’t look into the album, you live in it for as long as it’s on, submerged in its world.
The Weeknd – ‘House Of Balloons’ (2011)
There’s not really many songs that spook you when you listen to them first, but The Weeknd’s House Of Balloons/ Glass Table Girls was one. I kinda thought about this record in the best of the decade context first because of how I felt it sonically influenced what came after it – the tone of pop music certainly turned a lot murkier and darker, and I think House Of Balloons (the first part of the mixtape trilogy) definitely had a part to play in influencing that. But then I thought even about how its themes pretty much wrote most of Soundcloud emo-rap half a decade before it started to emerge. House Of Balloons’ bleak, narcotic nihilism (‘Yeah I’m doing cool shit, but I still feel shit’) and lines that really pierce you with how harsh and stark they are set the tone for a lot of that, for better or worse (on the worse-leaning side, Post Malone is probably the ultimate McDonalds-isification of this record). Along with how innovative the production was, the ghostly charisma of that darkness (which Abel Tesfaye’s anonymity aided when he first emerged) meant that on-impact, this is probably one of the most compelling things to emerge from the last ten years.
Salem – ‘King Night’ (2010)
Like House Of Balloons, but to a greater extent, I do sometimes wonder if it’s odd how little this album is spoken about anymore, even though it also had a huge impact on how the decade’s sound developed. King Night is also one of those albums where you remember the first time you heard it, very distinctly. The mutilation of O Holy Night that opens the record sets the tone for an album that feels like passing through a haunted hurricane of strange, dense noise, that batters you about and occasionally sculpts itself into angelic and sacred melodies – the church music of a digital cult yet to be invented. It’s also strange to wonder if a band like Salem would ever manage to wander into any kind of spotlight if they arrived now. It’s debatable if they make it past whatever corner of the internet they were brewing in in this age where everyone aspires to be ultra-professional – can’t really see them making the tasteful kind of Instagram posts that sells tickets to a show in middle-sized city four. And then they wandered off, never to be heard from again (though an EP that followed, I’m Still In The Night, has an amazing cover of Better Off Alone that’ll make you wonder if the ventilation in your building is working properly). Now that the hype has been burned away from the witch house era (on a side-note, when I was home over the summer I found an old copy of NME that advertised SeaPunk – it’s been a weird decade for genres), and we can judge it with some distance, it’s clear that King Night is one of the 10s’ most remarkable albums.
Jenny Hval – ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ (2015)
The personal connection to this record, if you have to go into these things, is an interview with Jenny Hval around this time is one of the first big interviews I ever did, and happening to coincide with my last weeks at university, so of course I spent more time preparing for the interview cos I wanted to sound smart than really studying for final exams (aced them anyway though, consequences aren’t real). I listened to it a lot then obviously, but picked it up again about a week ago when it occurred to me it might be an option for this list, and was struck by the line “That battle is over, feminism’s over, socialism’s over, yeah I can consume what I want now, consume what I want now.” The end of history-ism Hval’s raging against there was already pretty much over to all but the dumbest creeps by 2015, but the rapid crashing apart of the thin sheen of normality since then marks it out as extra-prescient. And now the apocalypse is dripping into pop more and more (hello Grimes, Kero Kero Bonito and even Lana Del Rey). There are no prophets in music and it’s silly to look for them, but Apocalypse, Girl, from a different time, foreshadowed a little of what was to come. As well as being a classic Hval adventure in experimentalism and politics of the heavy personal.
Arctic Monkeys – ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ (2018)
You could have, and probably most people would, pick out AM as the Monkeys record of the decade, the one that pushed hard, greasy rock into new shapes and broke the band into a new level of success (and settled the question of them being more than Mardy Bum forever). But in the year and a half I’ve lived with Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, it’s hooked my attention more. Its weirdness tends to make it more the more interesting Lynch to AM’s Tarantino, and it also seems to echo a little more with the world we live in. Turner relocates the failing empire to the moon, and fills it with wash-ups, shysters and emotionally numb lost souls, all grasping for a meaning that hopped off the train a couple of stops back – how could you not recognise it? There’s also the fact it’s musically gorgeous, Turner the staggering narrator of a world of dizzyingly-layered theatrical rock. You could listen to him talk about the quality of the upholstery on the sofas at the indoor golf lounge by Serenitatis for weeks.
Alvvays – ‘Antisocialites’ (2017)
This was gonna be a toss-up between the Canadian group’s self-titled debut or Antisocialites, because both are pretty much the same thing – nigh-on-perfect indie records. In the end, I sat in the middle of Dreams Tonite and Archie, Marry Me, and decided to go for Antisocialites on the basis that I like Dreams Tonite better (and spent around 6 months listening to a bad live version of it on YouTube before the recorded one came out). If you really, really wanted to split them up, the songwriting is probably a little stronger on Antisocialities too, but to be honest you could ask me in a week and I might have flipped again. Alvvays are one of the decade’s few guitar band success stories, in an era where the genre has both been looked-down upon culturally, as well as just become a harder gig (with less money in live music than ever, just playing shows with multiple people and touring is so much harder than being a solo pop artist who can always play with backing tracks if cash is a little tight). But they’re so good that you’d always have fancied them to make it – as well as being masters of indie rock melody, and when to led a little grit bleed into the music, Molly Rankin is just a great lyric writer and vocalist, and paints her stories with the detail and feeling that makes them hard not to fall for.
Kedr Livanskiy – ‘January Sun’ (2016)
This one could have been Kedr Livanskiy’s debut album Ariadna, and to be honest would have been except I had to take a photo with one of the vinyls for this fucking article and the closest one I had was January Sun (which is actually an EP). But whatever, let’s take them as one piece. I think what makes the early Kedr records special for me is the way the dreamy, analogue soundscapes wake ideas and memories. You know those big landscapes, either in nature or on the edges of urban spaces, that flow with their own deep, almost spiritual sounds, wind softly whishing through trees, the fizz of a distant train, hum of a generator, sound of river waves hitting shore. In places, January Sun and Ariadna remind me of those sounds, almost musical interpretations of them, rebuilt and reworked into songs. Which is why it’s music best listened to out in the open air, allowed to interact with the environments you walk through, either walking through the quiet parts of the city during the early morning, or cycling through Connemara at dusk like I listened to it this summer. January Sun also provoked me to deep dive into Russian music and culture, to the extent that I’ve been served Twitter ads in Russian for about a half-year now.
Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell
Moon City Boys – I Need More
Frank Ocean – channelOrange
David Bowie – Blackstar
Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Anika – Anika
Austra – Olympia
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
Strange Hellos – Chromatic
Samaris – Black Lights
The Voidz – Tyranny
The Strokes – Comedown Machine
Charles – Hollywood Rabbi
Find more personal stories about our editors’ favourite 2010 records right here.