Author: Riley Urbano
The last decade has been… weird. For all of us. In music, as in the world, precious few familiar faces stuck around while unexpected stars rose and fell. Whole movements began and ended, sometimes abruptly. Pour one out for vaporwave, cloud rap and chillwave, next chance you get… Some aspects of music culture remained comfortably constant; Warp is still putting out heat (thank god), arena tours still suck, the Grammys… still suck. But, thankfully, through the confusion and bad-acid energy of it all, a whole bunch of good music came forth into the world. Here are a few of my favorite albums from this period… not gonna bother trying to be “objective” on this one.
I limited my choices to one album per artist for the sake of breadth. If I omitted something that seems to you to be inescapable and massively important to the last decade’s worth of music, it wasn’t to be contrarian or to flex about how totally patrician I am, or anything like that. These are just like… my favorites. I promise.
13. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
I don’t know when it happened, but at the time of writing, Radiohead is super passé. On one hand, I get it: Radiohead is a group of stuffy older British dudes who make terminally mild “rock music.” On the other hand, they put out two career highlights in the 2010s, both of which buck hard against any stereotypes that persist about them. The superior of the two is The King of Limbs, a short and sweet foray back into the realm of electronic music with a decidedly naturalist flair. Sequenced melodies and percussive loops bleed into field recordings of birdsong and rustling leaves, the lyrics invoke lakes, oceans, and forests, and the title alludes to the oldest tree in the United Kingdom. Hardcore Radiohead fans seem to really hate this one for its unusually short runtime and minimalist approach to lyricism, but the album’s calm symbiosis of indie folk and electronic experimentation really works, and only sounds better eight years on.
12. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
Steve Ellison opened the decade up with a creative supernova. A boundary pushing magnum opus that revealed previously unexplored connections between IDM, jazz, and hip hop, Cosmogramma turned Flying Lotus into a fixture in West Coast hip hop, a live institution, and a tastemaker through his then-nascent label Brainfeeder. Though he may have been known to some, Cosmogramma also introduced me to the styles of Stephen Bruner, AKA Thundercat, who turns already great ideas like “Pickled!” and “Galaxy In Janaki” into exhilarating highlights with his absolutely insane bass solos. Since this release, Ellison has gone on to release several more admirable albums and leave his artistic mark on works as culturally inescapable as Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly and uh, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V. It’s difficult to imagine a 2010s without FlyLo, and this album remains his masterpiece.
11. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
This record is great in a million ways, but the thing it makes me think about the most is really just how… discontinuous the last ten years has felt. I mean, there isn’t much more than the pure numbers connecting 2013 to now. Modern Vampires is an exemplary rock record, the high watermark of a certain generation of indie music, but in 2019 things are really in a different place. It’s hard to imagine this record coming out now, how it would stack up against the 2019 indie crop, even though on another level it’s a good enough record to feel kind of timeless. Modern Vampires breathlessly throws every trick from the last century of rock music into a blender, rubbing “Canon in D” against Jandek against chopped and screwed vocals and hip hop drum breaks all within the span of one track (a single, at that). Whether or not their particular blend of genres and reference points will ever be in style again, I’m thankful that they managed to keep the ball rolling at least enough for one honest-to-god masterpiece.
10. Death Grips – NO LOVE DEEP WEB
Is it possible to actually rebel against music culture as it exists today? It’s a question that doesn’t seem to come up too often. But as the industry has adjusted to the internet throughout the decade, honest-to-god controversy in the world of popular music has only gotten more and more… dumbfounding. We’ve certainly had our share: latter-day Kanye fueling his persecution complex by grafting his public image to the MAGA crowd and the church, 6ix9ine, XXXtentacion… But there’s only one I’m personally inspired by, and it’s, of course, Death Grips. An unlikely pop crossover consisting of noise musicians and metalheads, Death Grips somehow became one of the most hyped bands of the early ‘10s due to their immediately gratifying songwriting and super unique aura. The stunt that defined their career and cemented them as influential thinkers was the insane rollout of their much-hyped second studio record, NO LOVE DEEP WEB. It’d take a full length essay to get into, but rest assured, the way that NO LOVE DEEP WEB made its way online leaves no doubt that the punk ethos is still alive, hiding in unlikely places. The music is harsh even by Death Grips’ standards, stripping every track down to the barest sonic minimum while frontman Stefan Burnett gives one of his most unhinged performances to date. In an industry where major artists have become increasingly reliant on promotional stunts to sell records, NLDW is still undeniably the event record of the decade.
9. Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
The late, great David Berman’s parting gift to the world. Slacker poet laureate, son of The Most Evil Man In The World (Richard Berman, look him up), mastermind of Silver Jews, David Berman has long been one of indie rock’s most fascinating and withdrawn figures. In the decade between Silver Jews’ abrupt breakup and now, Berman stayed off the radar, allowing some spoken word poetry readings to circulate here and there and lending his voice to an album a little further up on this list… Until this year, when all the sudden, he had a new band and a new album and even plans to go on tour. Purple Mountains was a stunning return to form for David Berman, an effortless demonstration that he hadn’t lost his edge, and a heartfelt document of inner turmoil written in the way only David Berman could. It was beautiful, briefly, to have him back. A little less than a month after the album released, just before the tour was slated to begin, Berman committed suicide, rendering the pain in this album really… real. There are some tracks I personally have trouble listening to all the way through, like the harrowing “Nights That Won’t Happen”… still, there are too many bright spots of pure lyrical magic on the record to ignore. All his troubles aside, David Berman deeply enriched my life and the wider world of rock music; the world went a little darker when he passed.
8. Kanye West- The Life of Pablo
Kanye West’s last masterpiece? He might have another one in him yet, but if the last few years are any indication, it’s hard to imagine him maintaining focus on any one thing long enough to pull a great collection of tracks together again. Kanye cast a long shadow over the ‘10s with a slew of divisive public controversies and occasionally with legitimately good music, and it all peaked in 2016 with his version of The White Album, The Life of Pablo. It’s hard to say anything about this record that most music enthusiasts don’t already know and feel strongly about, so I’ll just say that it’s a mostly breathtaking rollercoaster ride of manic peaks and depressive lows with countless classic Kanye flourishes distributed throughout. “Famous,” with the controversial lines about Taylor Swift. “Father Stretch My Hands,” the song that inflicted Desiigner onto the world. “FML,” with that show-stopping Weeknd feature. And, of course,“No More Parties In LA,” which miraculously positions Kendrick Lamar and Kanye in top form over an unbelievably good beat from Madlib. It’s a shame that Kanye seems to have burned too many bridges to pull an all-star cast of collaborators like this together again, because even as he was beginning to publicly lose his mind, he was still coming out with some phenomenal material.
7. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel […]
On The Idler Wheel, all the flashy or sexy or bombastic stuff that record exec creeps might have once cynically used to sell Fiona Apple’s earlier records has fallen away, and what’s left is a set of ten perfect songs. Even without an indie heavy-hitter like Jon Brion behind the boards, The Idler Wheel is a perfectly cinematic song cycle full of picture-perfect sonic moments; what’s even more remarkable is that they’re rarely comprised of much more than piano, voice and percussion. When Apple does spring for a bit of a sonic flourish, the effect is stunning, like the haunting field recordings of childlike screams during the climax of “Werewolf.” The minimalism of the record serves to emphasize the elements of Fiona’s sound that have always served her best: her expressive piano playing, her distinct voice, and her unconventionally poetic lyrics. It’s a shame that Apple’s release schedule has slowed to a crawl, and that this is the only collection of original music she released in a decade where every new artist sounds heavily influenced by her, but it could be worse; after all, this is easily one of the best albums of the decade.
6. Destroyer – Poison Season
This is my favorite rock and roll album that came out this decade, and it’s not what you think. Destroyer mastermind Dan Bejar is a million miles away from the conventional rock sound of the last few years — there aren’t any face melting guitar solos, no densely layered fuzz tones, no hyperactive screamed vocals. Bejar is much more in the tradition of ‘70s glam legends like Marc Bolan or Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, and Poison Season captures the lavish instrumental sound and just utterly classic songwriting style that marks the best records of that era. A full string section carries the theatrical interlude “Hell,” while woodwinds carry the melody of the following track, album highlight “The River.” There are gorgeous saxophone solos all over this thing, and one track where an expertly deployed trumpet makes a crucial appearance. But the real star of the show is Dan Bejar’s trademark vocal and lyrical style, at once totally weird and totally magnetic. No one writes quite like Dan Bejar, and now that he’s seemingly settled on a synthetic, New Wave inspired aesthetic, this full-band outing where no expense feels spared is easily one of the more special records of the decade. Seriously — listen to “Times Square” and try to convince yourself it isn’t one of the best songs you’ve ever heard… It’s impossible.
5. Autechre – elseq 1-5
Autechre’s twelfth, uh.. album? compilation? data dump? elseq series is a four-hour whirlwind of complete originality where boundary pushing ideas fight for space in unbelievably rapid succession. Every song presents a wholly original approach to electronic music that feels unmoored by any kind of technical constraint or even human influence; much of the material in the elseq series was constructed in Max MSP, a visual programming language that allows the use of procedural generation and Markov chains as tools to generate audio. What’s fascinating about this release is that despite sounding completely alien and inhuman, the music is still unmistakably Autechre, and even the furthest reaches away from the human capacity for composition bear an unmistakable authorial mark. Whether Ae masterminds Rob Brown and Sean Booth are conjuring up Rousseau-esque alien worlds with ambient cuts like “foldfree casual” or methodically reducing hyper-detailed compositions down to the simplest possible sonic material on “mesh cinereaL,” you’re more or less guaranteed to hear something completely out of this world on each of the collection’s 21 tracks. Talented producers like Arca, Holly Herndon and SOPHIE have more or less made careers off of contorting Autechre’s late period approach into more pop-friendly structures; still, the really exciting stuff is coming straight from the source.
4. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Piñata
I know how wrong-generation this will sound, but I’m pretty exhausted by hype culture in popular music right now. Nothing in the mainstream feels built to last- like, it’s pretty easy to forget an old Drake single once there are some new Drake singles out, right? For an example of what one stands to gain by sidestepping the whole hype-thing entirely, one doesn’t have to look much further than Freddie Gibbs or Madlib. These two have been at it, separately, for decades, carving out their niches piece by piece and building up devoted followings through consistency and serious effort. Which is why, even though Gibbs built his reputation off of trap records, and Madlib flips obscure samples for underground weirdo-rappers, the pairing still works perfectly. The two effortlessly adapt to each other’s styles, to stunning effect; their first collaborative LP, Piñata, was an instant classic with all the flair and grandeur of the best Blaxploitation movies of the ‘70s. The beats knock in all the right ways, Freddie balances out his surgical precision as an MC with a healthy sense levity, and every featured rapper deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 2015 Academy Awards. There aren’t a lot of rap records about which I feel I could say this, but Piñata feels legitimately timeless.
3. The Avalanches – Wildflower
Wildflower is a fantasy of an alternate musical history: underground Houston rappers trade verses over Beach Boys pastiche instrumentals, Father John Misty does backing vocals for a David Berman-led quasi-disco cut, and Biz Markie raps about breakfast over a Beatles sample approved by Sir Paul McCartney himself… And those aren’t even the weirdest moments on the record; that’d probably be the Danny Brown/MF Doom cut that coalesces into a sample of “My Favorite Things”… The Avalanches, who cemented themselves as legends with a single monumental record in 2000, predicted the 2010’s plunderphonics craze with kaleidoscopic sample-based musical odysseys; on Wildflower, they turn away from the dance floor-oriented energy of that first record towards the pastoral folk-psych of the ‘60s as well as the indie and hip hop styles of today. The highlights are unbelievable: Camp Lo’s star turn on the gospel-inflected “Because I’m Me” and Toro Y Moi’s mellow “If I Was A Folkstar” come immediately to mind, but there really isn’t a single miss among the 21 song tracklist. This is the summer record of a lifetime, and, given the Avalanches’ glacial release schedule, kind of a miracle.
2. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven
R Plus Seven is probably the logical endpoint of vapor-wave, one of the more interesting musical trends of the decade — it’s also a super-trippy deconstruction of music itself in relation to the internet and modern technology that feels more like walking through museum installations than listening to a record. It’s an album about the music we never think to engage critically with, in advertisements and educational materials. Conventional descriptions of melody, rhythm and harmony barely apply here; Daniel Lopatin (the man behind OPN) is working in a much more liminal zone where the tracks play with the listener’s expectations of melody, rhythm, and harmony. An exemplary cut, “Americans,” describes exactly what I’m talking about: Lopatin effortlessly conjures up an impressionistic mental image of the kind of ambient muzak we’re unconsciously absorbing all the time, only to tear it apart and completely decontextualize it over and over again. This is music as a philosophical debate with the technology that gives us our music, and at a time where algorithms try to do the work of developing our taste for us, that feels incredibly vital to me.
1. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
What did the world do to deserve someone as singularly talented as Joanna Newsom? A master writer and poet whose lyrics evoke fairy tales and literary masterpieces, a virtuoso harpist and pianist whose compositions feel otherworldly yet timelessly and unmistakably American, a talent magnetic enough to get such disparate figures in a room as Van Dyke Parks and Steve Albini to produce her second record… I could go on. Newsom mastered folk music on her first try with her amazing debut The Milk Eyed Mender, she took an incredible stab at orchestral arrangement on the followup with Ys, and then in 2010 came her magnum opus, Have One On Me. In the ten years following, no one’s come close to topping it in my estimation. This album is generous, offering listeners two hours worth of music spread across three records, and there isn’t a single track that’s anything less than stunning. Newsom takes slightly jazzy turns on tracks like “In California” and “You And Me, Bess,” Americana and nods to baroque classical music on and “Baby Birch” and “‘81,” even some country-inflected piano pop on album highlight “Good Intentions Paving Company.” Every melody, every lyric is equal parts heartbreaking and life-affirming, and it only gets better the more you listen. This is a record for the ages, and once the dust settles and the hype dies down around the big pop albums of the ‘10s, I think it’s records like these that are gonna be left standing. Don’t take it from me. Listen to this album immediately.
Here, Have One On Me:
Riley Urbano | i just really love music | KXSU Music Reporter