Whilst naturally this time of year is all about John Lewis and reflecting on some of the year’s ‘Best Of’s, the end of 2019 also coincides with the end of the decade. So with 2020 just around the corner, we thought we’d do things a little differently by taking a look back at the best music of the last ten years, with our top ten favourite records of the decade!
10) Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance
Standout Track: Danny Nedelko
“Love yourself.” That’s the humble yet prophetic message delivered by Idles in their 2018 record Joy as an Act of Resistance. It’s a simple idea that underpins this modern punk masterpiece but something worth repeating again and again in these tumultuous times – especially if you’ve got as much rage, passion, pain and joy as Idles do. The album’s highlight is Danny Nedelko, a solidarity anthem for the country’s immigration population named after a Ukrainian friend of the band. Joy as an Act of Resistance is the record that will define 2018. And while it does focus on the socio-political state of the UK – as well as the stillbirth of frontman Joe Talbot’s daughter – it’s cathartic, incredibly funny and a timely reminder that music matters.
9) Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)
Genre: Indie Folk
Standout Track: Holocene
Following on from the unexpected and unintentional success of his stripped-back shed record For Emma, Forever Ago three year previously, Justin Vernon returned in 2011 facing great expectations. But rather than attempt to emulate the intimacy of his debut, with Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Vernon expanded his sound in ambience and ambition. For all its faithful emotional sincerity, Bon Iver’s self-titled second record is far open than its predecessor and feels as though a natural introvert has just walked into a larger world with both hope and trepidation. Simply put, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is much more than For Emma, Forever Ago, in scope and in sound. Really, in every way possible.
8) Frank Ocean – Channel Orange (2012)
Genre: Alternative R&B
Standout Track: Super Rich Kids
24-year-old Frank Ocean should never have been able to live up to the early day hype when he released Channel Orange in 2012. And yet, here we are eight years later. Sonically unconventional and complex, with electro, funk, jazz, psychedelia and pop influences scattered throughout its soul backdrop, Ocean’s debut snubbed virtually every radio trend going upon its release. It can be palpably weird in places, taking melodic U-turns when you least expect it, but whether Ocean is being witty or bearing all, his storytelling is exemplary and Ocean rewards patience with wisdom far beyond his years.
7) Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
Genre: Indie Rock
Standout Track: Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
Never one to shy away from grand ideas, Arcade Fire headed into the decade on the back of critical and commercial success with their epic debut album Funeral, which navigated themes of death and loss, and 2007’s Neon Bible, which explored religious ideology and natural disasters. The idea behind The Suburbs, however, was much simpler; growing up. The result was a tour-de-force in stylish rock/pop song-writing that taps into a sense of existential anxiety nearly all late 20-, early 30-somethings only know too well.
6) The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream (2014)
Standout Track: Red Eyes
For our money, The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream is the most underrated album of the decade. The third record in their back catalogue, Lost in the Dream is where the Philadelphia band truly found their sound. That sound is familiar – Springsteen and Tom Petty to name two clear influences – but lyrically frontman Adam Granduciel emphasises a sense of discovery, in self and space, with dreamlike reverb and shifting landscapes. The result is a cathartic record, both sad but also deeply hopeful. It might not blow your socks off on first play – baring the exceptional “Red Eyes” and “Burning” – but it was never meant to. Like all great heartland records, Lost in the Dream reveals itself slowly and significantly, like a long lost friend.
5) D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah (2014)
Standout Track: Really Love
Just how do you repay a decade and a half worth’s of belief and patience? That was the question before the release of D’Angelo’s long-awaited third record Black Messiah, coming 14 years after 2000’s masterpiece Voodoo and a full 19 years after his much lauded debut Brown Sugar. What’s truly remarkable about Black Messiah, other than the fact that it even exists, is it surpasses even the loftiest of expectations. It’s an experimental soul masterpiece, with accents of jazz, G-funk, 90s R&B, and even Spanish guitar. But what’s more impressive is the album’s themes, which range from politics and socio-economics, to romance and spirituality. It’s a beautifully written human record, with self-awareness, anger and self-doubt laid bare throughout.
4) The National – High Violet (2010)
Genre: Indie Rock
Standout Track: Bloodbuzz Ohio
It’s rare for a band to release three critically adored records in a row which is each superior to its predecessor. But The National’s fifth record High Violet did exactly that in 2010. The record delivered a more tailored sound than that of Alligator and Boxer. It was more daring and undoubtedly the sign of a band (and probably audience) growing into their own skin. Often said but rarely accurate, there isn’t a single bad song on the record. Both powerful and poetic, High Violet was and still is a total masterclass in emotional layering.
3) Lorde – Melodrama (2017)
Genre: Art Pop
Standout Track: Green Light
When Lorde released Pure Heroine in 2013, it never truly received the recognition it deserved, with many critics and audiences focusing on the New Zealand born popstar’s age as opposed to her talents. But her follow-up album, Melodrama, dispelled any talk of talent for her age, cementing Lorde’s as one of the most talented pop artists on the planet, regardless of years. Melodrama is an expression of this argument in many ways, with tales of break-ups, regrets, and social anxiety told in a way only a teenager can really express. But the themes are expressed so maturely – musically, with influences from dance floorfillers and R&B slow-jamz, and lyrically with vivid precision – you’d be forgiven for thinking Melodrama was Kate Bush singing about her High School years: Broadcast the boom-boom-boom-boom and make ’em all dance to it. There aren’t many 21-year-olds who think quite like Lorde.
2) Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Genre: Hip Hop
Standout Track: POWER
He may be obnoxious and he may be conceited, but at least Kanye West is open to discussing his identity’s undesirables. Few in his considerable position would or could do the same quite so expertly. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is gaudy and grandiose, but there are no delusions of grandeur here. The record is an epic extravaganza of heart, soul, aggression, abrasiveness, beauty and purpose which, at the time, was arguably the most ambitious hip-hop album ever made. It’s Kanye’s masterpiece and the realisation of everything he’d been promising since The College Dropout.
1) Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Genre: Hip Hop
Standout Track: Alright
But where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was ambitious, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was revolutionary and confirmed Lamar as the most important musician still making music we have today. Following on from Lamar’s 2012 low-key and linear, but no less extraordinary, record Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, To Pimp A Butterfly is an 80-minute intricate collage of unfinished ideas and contradictions, both lyrically and musically. Sonically, it’s a complex mash-up of 70s funk, free jazz, hip hop beats and rock guitar hooks. While on the verses Lamar reflects eruditely on everything from the existence of a higher power and police brutality, to fame and profound loneliness. But underneath the tragedy of it all, To Pimp a Butterfly is a manifesto for change. Many, many records have tried to achieve the same but very few have been poignant and intelligent enough to actually do so. It’s no coincidence that the record’s standout moment “Alright” became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement and literally inspired a generation. To Pimp a Butterfly is the most important record of the decade for many reasons. It’s actually easy to forget just how much of a blast it is to listen to: When you hear the next Pop / The funk shall be within you. Preach.