My Top Albums of the Decade
The 2010s were a hideous decade. We went into them with 3D movie glasses with the lenses popped out, so it was really hard to hit a lower point, but alas — the human condition is all about overcoming adversity, so this was not enough of a laurel to rest on. Despite the criminal fashion fads that we will never be able to remove from our brains, one may push through the discarded emoji print sweatshirts and cookie monster shirts to find some amazing music created in this decade. As we bid the 2010s a final adieu, here are a few albums from over the years that affected me personally.
After the Avalanches released their seminal album, Since I Left You, they mostly disappeared after touring for the album. Rumors of a second album stirred for almost a decade before Wildflower, sixteen years after their debut, was announced.
How often is it that a band comes back after sixteen years and doesn’t flop? Even a longtime fan like myself was dubious, how would a band famous for a plunderphonics album (Since I Left You was composed of over 3,500 samples) be able to make it after the war of attrition copyright law has waged on sampling. The Avalanches, however, did not disappoint.
Some people didn’t like the new direction towards psychedelia in contrast with the more melancholic sounds of the first album, but I think it makes sense when you look at the inspiration behind Wildflower. Some of the most notable samples come from Streetwise (1984), a documentary about youth on the outskirts of society in Seattle and the highs and lows of their lives. Wildflower sounds cheery, but there are moments of wistfulness within the lines. More than anything, Wildflower seems interested in reflection on amazing and memorable experiences that come about from making one’s way through the world. “Kaleidoscopic Lovers”, featuring Jonathan Donahue from Mercury Rev, is an amazing portrait painted through music that shows just how far the Avalanches can stray from their DJ roots without losing any substance.
Cosmogramma is heavily influenced by jazz, most notably by Flying Lotus’ aunt, the legendary Alice Coltrane. This work seemed the natural continuation of the works of 20th century artists like Sun Ra, who pioneered space jazz and the sounds of afrofuturism.
Painstaking care is put into every moment — the mixing took four months instead of a few days, if that is any indicator of how dense and meticulous the sound Flying Lotus crafted is. In an era that saw the death of the LP for the picking and choosing of hits from an album, Cosmogramma is more of an experience — conceptually, the album is all tied together with the sounds of space, but all the songs also segue into one another in a way that rewards listening longform.
I first heard this album when I was fourteen, coincidentally a perfect point in my life for this introduction, because I was performing in the Alabama Blues Project and first delving into the obscure world of instrumental hip-hop, listening to UNKLE, DJ Shadow, and other artists who created their own niche within the underground. Cosmogramma has always felt like a bridge between the two, connecting the antiquated roots of jazz and blues with a millennial's touch in electronic and hip-hop styles, and the combination is one that would take prominence in the 2010’s.
When the Gorillaz released Plastic Beach, responses were polarized. Diehard fans of the earlier albums were conflicted about the change of sound, but it was necessary in order for Plastic Beach to stand on its own legs. The more quirky parts of the Gorillaz project were balanced out by orchestral movements and a notably more melancholic presence in the writing — the scope of the entire project extends past the goalposts of their early 2000’s releases and brings the project out of its niche.
I’ve always loved the ocean, and Plastic Beach does it justice. Every aspect of this album is nautical beauty, even songs I didn’t like originally just seem to be at home on this record. It is the most cohesive of all of the Gorillaz albums, even post-comeback, and has an amazing lineup of features that all exceed expectations on their songs. “Empire Ants”, featuring Little Dragon, is one of the best works to come from the Gorillaz project in its entirety.
The 2010s were a period of stark change in the world. When one thinks of the transition to an increasingly digital era, the natural pushback manifests in the outskirts, and Death Grips certainly channel the nihilistic, anti-social throes of a society perceived to be on the decline.
No Love Deep Web is a stark departure from the earlier works, Exmilitary and The Money Store. Instead of manic sampling or high energy industrial electronics, Death Grips presents a more stripped down sound reliant on primal percussion and the rancor of MC Ride. This album presents a brisk, more controlled version of the same primal rage that has made the band famous in the first place, with a newly focused scope.
I’ve always preferred the bleaker works of Death Grips, particularly this album and Government Plates, which seems to be in contrast to how most of their listeners feel. For me this album shows the power of contrast — doing a lot with a little, leaking ones own album and destroying a record deal. “Artificial Death in the West” is an excellent finale to an album plagued by paranoia, and in retrospect seems to foreshadow the darker sides of the digital frontier in a time of rampant technological innovation.
The Ugly Art is another album written against a corporate world. Every Machine Girl release is an evolution from the previous project, this album uses live drums entirely to accentuate the punk and metal inspirations and create a more dynamic performance live. Much like the rest of Machine Girl’s projects, this album is full of self-aware, high energy chaos. “Fuck Your Guns” is an anthem that peels the skin off of boomers, completely in-line with the frenetic ethos of the album.
I went to see Machine Girl live on the tour for this album and it was one of the greatest live performances I’ve ever experienced. All Hell broke loose for an hour and a half in a small bar in Nashville during the fall tour. As soon as they began, the pit went full power and never slowed down until the music stopped. Being a part of “Necro Culture Vulture” live was something I will never forget.
I have followed Kero Kero Bonito since I first heard bo en remix “My Party” in 2014, and I can say with full confidence that this is their greatest work to date. Time ’n’ Place is an album that dials back some of the optimism and feel-good present in their earlier works, and instead offers a more emotive perspective. Besides a few (in my opinion) inopportune moments of experimentation, the songs on Time ’n’ Place retain the charm of earlier works without sacrificing anything in the transition from electronic “kawaii” sounds to more fleshed out live music.
I missed seeing Kero Kero Bonito in three cities in 2018 due to small venues selling out before I could procure tickets or scheduling difficulties. In 2019, I was able to see them, but that wasn’t enough, so I had to see them twice, because Kero Kero Bonito is one of the most fun bands I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing live. Both times I left smiling from ear-to-ear, because the energy is infectious. If someone told me I’d be in the pit for a U2 song, I’dve laughed in their face.
I found BennY RevivaL in 2016 after one of his videos dancing in a clown mask went viral during the bizarre period of actual clown sightings. God, what a year. I never expected to find such a rabbit hole when I tried to find the song in his video (it was FREAKY KNIFE .., by the way). I downloaded three of his mixtapes from datpiff to try and figure out what the hell was going on, and I discovered someone who is pushing against every single boundary of hip-hop while also making Christian (or at least vaguely, despite his problems with the churches) music that the underground wants to listen to?
SALUTE is the first work of his that I listened to, and in my opinion is his most cohesive. “FREAKY KNIFE ..” is a genuine lo-fi marvel, and it can be assumed that Mr. RevivaL is responsible for the production as well as the writing since it seems a project as ambitious as his can only have one person directing it. Also notable is “PAY HOMAGE ..”, which represents an integral part of the BennY RevivaL ethos: honoring those who inspired you. This was the jump off point for me discovering over 14 other albums he has penned in less than 5 years. The next decade will spell big things for Benny, I believe, as we await the collaboration between he and Frank Ocean.
Shabazz Palaces debut album, Black Up, is a criminally underrated work of the decade. Coming in at 36 minutes, it is a shorter album, but not a moment of this is wasted. Black Up is a production of the highest caliber that withstands the test of time even now, but could not have been more ahead of its time when it was released in 2011. Black Up foreshadows a deviation from the norms of hip-hop, leaning into jazz and adjacent genres in a way that, during the latter half of the decade, caught fire within both the underground and to an extent, the mainstream.
“Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)” is a standout on an album full of fantastic experiments that all stick the landing. This album is not concerned with producing a hit, Black Up is a work of art, and everything about it is geared towards creating a unique experience for the listener. Careful attention to ambiance and silence help cultivate a very introspective and airy sound, Shabazz Palaces crafted a project that wants to challenge the conventions of the genre, and I would argue that Black Up takes one of the first swings of the decade at stratifying hip-hop and showing how that going one’s own way is not a strategy, it is a necessity.