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One final list to round out the year and, indeed, the decade. The end-of-year lists were tough to narrow down, so the task of picking just a few albums from an entire decade of music was straight-up Herculean. Inevitably, we had to leave out a bucketload of albums that we loved and spent a lot of time with over the past ten years. It’s not them, it’s us—I swear. Already I fear the backlash awaiting a best albums of the 2010s list featuring zero (0) Frank Ocean or Beyoncé albums. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy our picks for the best of the decade.
If you’ve got end-of-year burnout, scroll to the bottom for a playlist featuring a track from each album. Well, almost each album. Vulfpeck’s Sleepify is unfortunately unavailable, having displeased our streaming overlords. Conversely, Spotify displeases Joanna Newsom, so I’ve made the (very questionable) decision to include the only Joanna Newsom song on the platform—’The Muppet Show Theme’. Enjoy.
Alt-J | An Awesome Wave
The hipsters really made the best of this decade, coming out in force with the wildly popular An Awesome Wave. Every tune on this album is a banger, it’s like October on the Luas. Songs like ‘Breezeblocks’ and ’Fitzpleasure’ are a staple of Workmans playlists and TV ads. Clever, artsy, and twisty-turny, while not losing accessibility and pop appeal. The hipsters do not forget, nor do the advertising executives.
Arcade Fire | The Suburbs
When the time comes to reflect on the legacy of Arcade Fire, those reflections will largely consider the ‘00s rather than the ‘10s, particularly considering their downward trajectory this past decade. However, The Suburbs (2010) is arguably their finest hour. Many albums are labelled cinematic, but this one is truly defined by its narrative sensibilities.
As the title suggests, The Suburbs is an exploration, both critical and nostalgic, of suburbia, in a personal sense and on a broader societal level. The tendency toward electronic instrumentation, a defining aspect of 2013 follow-up Reflektor, is present on some tracks (‘Sprawl II’, ’Half Light II’), but mostly the album leans into its forebears—Bruce Springstreen, Neil Young, and the likes. Blistering rock n’ roll tracks (‘Empty Room’, ‘Month of May’) mark pivotal moments of release, a freedom from the shackled energy pulsing in all suburban kids. Elsewhere, songs like ‘City With No Children’ employ a fatalistic undercurrent, an acceptance that the spark of youth will die in the transition to adulthood. Ultimately, Arcade Fire eschew any regret:
“All the time that we wasted, I’d only waste it again.” – ‘The Suburbs (continued)’
Ariana Grande | Sweetener
2018 wasn’t off to the best start for 24-year-old pop star Ariana Grande. Still reeling from the terrorist attack at her concert in Manchester the previous year, nobody would have blamed her for disappearing for a while. Instead, she released her fourth studio album, based on love and hope. Full of pop and R&B, with a dash of funk, EDM and soul, Sweetener broadened Ariana’s musical horizons. Sweetener was shaped with Ariana’s vulnerability and the world got to see a different side of her than before. With the success of this album, she solidified herself as a true pop icon.
Bon Iver | 22, A Million
Justin Vernon has universal acclaim as the king of sad bops, as ‘Skinny Love’ fans will tell ye. But since ‘Skinny Love’ we’ve heard Bon Iver’s self-titled album. Bon Iver was a complex, highly-nuanced work from a top-class musical group. Then comes 22, A Million—a producer’s dream. This cryptic, twisty-turny masterwork of audio design, sampling, and emotion-swirling lyricism make this an album to mark all other clever producers against. Listen to ‘29 #Strafford APTS’ for an example of a country song done the Justin Vernon way, or ‘715- CREEKS’ for heart-wrenching emotional poignancy like no other.
Chewing On Tinfoil | Marrowbone Lane
Dubliners Chewing On Tinfoil represent the Irish experience in all its messed up glory. This is as true for their newest releases as it was for 2013’s Marrowbone Lane. Infused in the sound of ska punk, Chewing On Tinfoil employ an undercurrent of comedy and brute honesty. From politics, to loneliness, to love, they bring together what it means to be a young adult living in Ireland in a way that is still (if not more) relevant today.
This essence of Irishness opened up the alternative music scene in Dublin for those of a similar sound. As a result, they have had a huge impact on the underground scene in the years following Marrowbone Lane. The albums longevity is a testament to this, fans have stuck with them from all the way back in 2013, and to this day they’ll claim just as strongly that Chewing On Tinfoil are the best band in the country.
Daughters | You Won’t Get What You Want
You Won’t Get What You Want is a hypnotic, groove-oriented record. Blending elements of industrial rock and no wave, it’s relentless. Crashing drums underpinning bizarre guitar and synth textures conjure a sickening, panic-inducing atmosphere. Its emotional colour chart ranges from miserable (slow burners like ‘Satan In The Wait’) to absolutely horrifying (straight-ahead rockers like ‘The Reason They Hate Me’), all drenched in noise and a sense of peril.
It’s an album that seeks to make you feel something, but the feeling is not good. Frontman Alexis Marshall’s jerky vocals recall the more manic moments of Nick Cave and the muffled contortions of David Yow (The Jesus Lizard), while sonically the chaos and drones throughout can draw comparison to Swans, but in a far more muscular form. But despite these very specific reference points, the product is completely its own. It’s a compelling, harsh and extraordinary listen, albeit an unfriendly one.
Death Grips | The Money Store
Death Grips are an enigma. Controversial and hostile, the trio of Stefan Burnett (vocals, lyrics), Zach Hill (drums, percussion, production), and Andy Morin (keyboards, programming, production) provide an extreme take on experimental hip hop. The Money Store was their full-length studio and major label debut, released amid huge internet buzz. Throughout its 41 minutes, Death Grips’ aural assault is on full display. The Money Store is packed with dark, menacing industrial beats and atonal drones (‘Lost Boys’, ‘Black Jack’) but with an ear for grooves and killer hooks (‘Hustle Bones’, ‘I’ve Seen Footage’, ‘Get Got’ and ‘Hacker’). All of this is propelled by Burnett’s (a.k.a. MC Ride) intense, furious vocal style and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Deafening, esoteric and uncompromising, yet forward-thinking, Death Grips crafted a truly original and vital record for the alternative hip-hop scene.
Hozier | Hozier
Having an Irish superstar is surreal. It’s so nice to have an Irish musician I can properly feel proud of, rather than the kind of eye-roll way I have to appreciate U2 whenever an American tourist talks about them. Hozier’s first album was a landmark, though. Incredibly well-crafted songs that still get extensive radio play are a bit of a rarity these days. These tunes are stitched together with love, full of expressive lyrics that aren’t blunt or dumbed down, incredible musical skill, and a voice that melts butter.
Ireland’s really rallied around Hozier too, our own lil’ wood elf. It’s not hard to find people in a pub who wouldn’t yell a few words of ‘Take Me To Church’, or cry to ‘Cherry Wine’. This has been the Irish album in many ways, and I’m not about to fight anyone over that, least of all Hozier. The man might lay a curse on me.
IDLES | Joy as an Act of Resistance
Joy as an Act of Resistance tackles toxic masculinity, vulnerability, intoxication, class inequality, infantile nationalism, and self-love. Its positive ferocity keeps a steady credo, making it difficult to pick out key moments. The quieter strain of the tragic ‘June’, a lament for a stillborn child, is heart-wrenching:
“Baby shoes for sale
‘Love Song’ subverts the very notion of its title, while the wonderfully boisterous ‘Danny Nedelko’ calls for tolerance and celebrates multiculturalism. Elsewhere, ‘Never Fight a Man with a Perm’ offers a lesson in turning the other cheek, and ‘Gram Rock’ offers a glimpse into the mind of pricks on coke. ‘I’m Scum’ is an exercise in embracing ones beliefs and wearing them proudly on ones sleeve, while Solomon Burke’s soul standard ‘Cry to Me’ is caked in lye and left out to burn slowly. Joy as an Act of Resistance has more than a message or two, but avoids both craw-thumping and empty platitudes. IDLES are a band with a strong sense of empathy and a rejuvenating, contagious honesty and energy. This document is one the world of guitar music badly needed.
Joanna Newsom | Have One On Me
A running time of over two hours and not a minute wasted. Newsom establishes herself as one of the finest lyricists of her generation across a perfectly-paced three-part epic. Despite the lengthy running time, Have One On Me is, in many ways, one of her most accessible albums. Newsom’s voice, often a source of derision for her detractors, is more controlled than before, and her lyrics are (somewhat) easier to decipher. This more direct approach results in some of the most emotionally resonant moments of her career—‘Baby Birch’ for example. The track, closing out the first of three discs, is an aching nine-minute exploration of grief and loss, signalling the sort of sadness that permeates discs two and three.
Ultimately, It’s difficult to compress my thoughts on HOOM into a short piece, given its sprawling nature, so I’ll let myself resort to cliche—this is a rewarding album. Ten years on, it never feels stale and I’m still unearthing new things, despite regular listening across an entire decade. The individual strength of songs like ‘In California’ or ‘Go Long’ allows for quick dips, and yet the immaculate structure of Have One On Me is built for deep dives.
Kanye West | My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Some will argue that there are weak moments on here. Those people are goblins, ghouls, zombies with no conscience. This is, inarguably, the finest hour of an artist who has, for better or worse, shaped a significant portion of the cultural landscape of the 21st century. You could make a case for The College Dropout or Yeezus—both of which I also love—but, for me, Kanye’s output follows a standard bell curve, building towards MBDTF before steadily declining, from a staggering peak, to the frankly terrible Jesus Is King.
This is Kanye in the directorial role that has always served him best, elevating his collaborators beyond anything they should be capable of, curating his wide-ranging influences to form a cohesive vision, and weaving it all around an intimate narrative of unknowable power and universal loathing. ‘Runaway’, one highlight of many, is the fitting apex of Kanye’s career—the epic tragedy of an ego unravelling amidst all that fame, all that money, all that power.
Kendrick Lamar | good kid, m.A.A.d city
If the 2010s belonged to any artist they belonged to Kendrick. In commercial terms, the likes of Drake and Taylor Swift would probably argue otherwise, but Kendrick’s meteoric rise is incomparable. His early projects, Overly Dedicated and Section.80, signalled immense promise, but few, if any, would have seen a Pulitzer in his future.
Though To Pimp A Butterfly offers social commentary on a broader scale, and is probably Kendrick’s most important record in a cultural sense, good kid, m.A.A.d city is the album that lit the fuse for his career. His ability as a storyteller defines this album, with Kendrick weaving an intimate narrative of his youth through every track, culminating in ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’, the climactic chapter of GKMC. It’s not just his ability as a writer either, Kendrick’s delivery as a rapper is unparalleled.
Even putting aside the praise for Kendrick’s storytelling virtuosity and chameleon vocal ability, GKMC is just an insanely enjoyable record. The raucous ego of ‘Backseat Freestyle’, Jay Rock’s scene-stealing verse on ‘Money Trees’, the anxious eruption halfway through ‘m.A.A.d city’—these are just a few notable highlights on a record full of highlights.
Kendrick Lamar | To Pimp a Butterfly
To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick Lamar at his angriest and most laser-focused. While good kid, m.A.A.d city provided a cinematic view of his hometown of Compton, it was this follow-up that saw him move beyond those city walls to offer a sketch of black America from his perspective, against a deliberate backdrop of jazz and funk music—a nod to the historical protest music of his people. It’s Lamar’s lyrics that evoke and project the most powerful of his ideas, however, preaching messages of self-love (‘i’), self-respect (‘The Blacker the Berry’), defiance (‘King Kunta’), unity (‘Alright’), and peace (‘These Walls’). To Pimp a Butterfly is an important record, one for its time and the community that birthed it.
Paramore | After Laughter
Paramore returned in 2017 after a 5-year hiatus, delivering one of the best pop albums of the decade. They finally made the last break away from their pop punk past and dove headfirst into pop funk fusion. The return of drummer Zac Farro was the driving force of this change, bringing elements from his other project HalfNoise into Paramore’s sound.
Combined with this new upbeat funk sound, frontwoman Hayley Williams brought an honesty to the lyrics that wasn’t as present in previous albums. Sure, older songs like ‘Monsters’ and ‘Emergency’ may dip into her mental state, but none have looked as deep as After Laughter. On tracks such as ‘26’ and ‘Tell Me How’, Hayley seems to finally open up about her troubled friendships, and the ending of her marriage. With After Laughter, it feels like Paramore have finally found their home.
St. Vincent | Strange Mercy
On Strange Mercy, St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) builds a little world full of memorable characters, gorgeous hooks, and scorching guitars, balancing the deep cut ballads and the blitzing singles with consummate ease. With its opening run (‘Chloe In The Afternoon’, ‘Cruel’, ‘Cheerleader’), Strange Mercy grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go until album closer ‘Year Of The Tiger’ fades into silence.
Her lyrics remain sharp, witty as ever, but they’re imbued with a sincerity that was perhaps lacking in the wry delivery of her previous works, Marry Me and Actor. Clark isn’t afraid to flaunt her skills as a guitar player either, indulging in solos, often with heavy effects (‘Northern Lights’), throughout the album, but they’re always earned, always an essential component of the whole. On the latter half of the album, songs like ‘Champagne Year’ and ‘Year Of The Tiger’ are slower, more brooding, perhaps even self-reflective. Strange Mercy is a masterfully-crafted album, establishing Clark as a virtuoso songwriter.
Swans | To Be Kind
To Be Kind is two-hours of intense, relentless heights, subverting the tropes of rock music to make something completely unique—even outdoing the group’s previous effort The Seer, which is no mean feat. The album treads a fine line between accessible and challenging. Unpacking its gems requires patience, especially with just ten tracks at that length, but its consistency is astounding.
The dangling blues of ‘Just a Boy (for Chester Burnett)’ and the deranged discord of ‘A Little God in My Hands’ set the tone for the record. It’s not for everyone but the listener’s perseverance is no doubt rewarded, and reflects that of its creators. Swans began as an entity led by Michael Gira (who, at his age, has no right to be making music this edgy) in 1982 but have only just reached their critical peak. This is fair enough really. While they’ve always been uncompromising, they’ve never been as compelling as they have since their 2010 return.
The Wonder Years | The Greatest Generation
2013 brought us the fourth studio album from emo/pop punk band The Wonder Years. Through melancholic vocals and explosive riffs, The Greatest Generation effortlessly encapsulated the feelings of a disillusioned youth. A youth entering a period of economic disappointment, with no future prospects, and a rise in mental health issues. Throughout the album, we see comparisons to the wars of previous generations, and how the fear then and the fear of our generation now, while different, are still linked in many ways. Frontman Dan Campbell sings about the generation who lived through the Great Depression and WW2. He laments that, due to their sacrifices, it seems selfish to complain about modern life, and this album confronts that in a very stark way. Through deeply honest lyrics, Campbell perfectly captures the guilt and anger of his generation, and everything they are left to struggle with.
Twenty One Pilots | Vessel
Like them or loathe them, there’s no denying that Twenty One Pilots have made an impact on the music industry, breaking sales figures again and again. Before their explosive second studio album Blurryface, they released Vessel, an album which began with low sales of 1,000 units a week. For the next few years the album sold consistently, averaging at 2,000 units a week, and their popularity built so slowly that no one really noticed.
However, it was Vessel which planted the seeds for further success, and it was the honest lyrics of singer Tyler Joseph, and the tight-knit piano and drum combo of Tyler and drummer Josh Dun, that grabbed people and pulled the fans in. The depression and the demons that Tyler fights on this album are universal and Vessel is written in a way that invites the listener to join him in that fight. This intense openness brought a sense of community around the band that remains to this day.
Villagers | The Art Of Pretending To Swim
Irish songwriters are a particularly beautiful bunch, and Conor O’Brien is my favourite of the lot. The Art Of Pretending To Swim marked a funky left-turn in the band’s discography, but was still met with universal acclaim (see two sold-out Vicar Street gigs just this month).
We’re used to beautiful, thoughtful and well-crafted folk songs from Villagers, but this album proved these songs could be… fun?! ‘Love Came With All That It Brings’ and ‘Real Go-Getter’ are poetry with a dancing groove, and proof that well-made music can be fun and boppy too. This album marks the high point of a band that are a pinnacle of Irish talent, and certainly gets my vote for one of the best albums of the decade.
Vulfpeck | Sleepify
The music industry hasn’t changed much (i.e. is still a cesspit of greed) in the last ten years, but the tools we use to access that stinky, awful swamp have moved with the times. Spotify (kind of like Narnia’s wardrobe but for the music-swamp) now dominates all discussion in boardrooms, and is the most important thing for a new musician to consider. With this in mind, it’s hard not to recognise the absolute brilliance of Vulfpeck’s album, Sleepify, released in 2014.
The album contains ten tracks. Each 30 seconds long. Each completely silent. Vulfpeck fans were asked to put it on repeat at night, completely gaming Spotify’s royalty collection algorithm (‘ZZZZZ’ is a highlight). Without having to play a single note, Vulfpeck made enough money to fund a tour in seven weeks. Spotify threw their hands up and said “Yeah, okay, that was pretty clever,” before taking it down 7 weeks after its release. In an age where we’ve increasingly become part of the algorithm, and more actively participate as data on a programmer’s spreadsheet, it’s good to know there’s still the opportunity to commit some nice, clean fraud.